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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Bogus Drunk Driving Attack in Nevada

A misleading Republican attack ad accuses Nevada’s Democratic candidate for Senate of putting “deadly drunk drivers back on the roads.” She didn’t.

This scary-looking ad was released by the National Republican Senatorial Committee on Aug. 27. It shows a driver sipping a drink behind the wheel while the vehicle swerves into the path of an oncoming car.

The ad’s female narrator says that “Catherine Cortez Masto’s office” approved the “early release” of drunk drivers from prison when she was the state’s attorney general. The narrator says only 20 percent of “deadly drunk drivers” were returned to prison, and she accuses Cortez Masto of “impaired judgment.”

The Boring Facts

The facts are a good bit less dramatic.

In 2010 the Reno Gazette-Journal reported that at least 40 of the 113 people convicted of killing or severely injuring someone while driving drunk in Nevada since 2000 were released early. The 40 drivers had been sentenced to a minimum of two years as required by state law, but the state’s Department of Corrections allowed them to serve the remainder of their terms under house arrest rather than behind bars.

At issue was whether the law allowed some of that time to be served under house arrest.

The story said, “Howard Skolnik, the [corrections] agency’s director, said he had the legal right to OK the releases. He cited an opinion by Senior Deputy Attorney General Jill Davis, who said she believed the corrections department followed proper procedures.” Davis was the senior deputy attorney general from February 2006 to March 2011.

Note that the state prison system did the releasing, and that Cortez Masto herself was not mentioned in the story, which is one of two the NRSC cites as the source of the ad’s claims.

Also important is that some of the 40 cases mentioned in the story go back long before Cortez Masto took office in 2007 and served until 2015. The story said they were among “the 113 people convicted since 2000.”

Between 2000 and 2007, the office of attorney general was held by one Democrat, Frankie Sue del Papa (until 2002) and two Republicans, Brian Sandoval (who’s now governor) and George Chanos.

Cortez Masto’s Role

Cortez Masto’s role was to quickly reverse the early-release policy and order as many drivers back to prison as she could.

She said that her office had misinterpreted the law. Four days after the Gazette-Journal‘s first story, the newspaper reported:

Reno Gazette-Journal, Feb. 18: Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto said today that her office gave incorrect legal advice to the Department of Corrections, and said people convicted of driving drunk and killing or injuring someone must spend a minimum of two years in prison. …

“I have reviewed the law and the advice given by our office was wrong,” Cortez Masto said. “The law is very clear: the mandatory minimum prison sentence must be served prior to any house arrest.”

As a result, eight of the 40 convicted drunk drivers were ordered back to prison to serve the remainder of their two-year mandatory terms. All the others had completed their sentences.

Back on Our Roads?

We find the ad to be misleading when it says in a graphic “80% deadly drunk drivers back on our roads,” referring to the 40 drivers. As we’ve explained, 32 of the 40 drivers had served their sentences. So Cortez Masto could not take action because they had already completed their sentences.

And in any case, no one was free to go back “on our roads” while under house arrest.

Finally, we find no evidence that any of these 40 were later involved in the sort of drunken collision depicted in this very misleading ad, either while under house arrest or after they had completed their sentences. And the NRSC did not offer any such evidence in its press release. As we often advise when TV spots appeal to fear: If it looks scary, be wary.

So whose judgment is “impaired”? We say it’s the NRSC for running an ominous attack ad that disregards key facts.