On a Wednesday morning, the Incline Village-Crystal Bay Township Justice Court has a full slate of cases. The day’s schedule begins with Judge E. Alan Tiras working with clerks, lawyers, and the defendants before him. And today he hears pleas and issues sentences for misdemeanors that occurred within Incline Village and Crystal Bay. However, most of those appearing in court today are not within the township, they are before the court virtually.
An Assistant District Attorney checks in to the hearing by Zoom from the Truckee Meadows. The defendant is in custody in Reno but appears and participates virtually. A defense lawyer joins with a blurred background. Seated on the bench, Judge Tiras conducts this hybrid in-person and online court with the skill of a symphony conductor. As camera focus shifts to those speaking at the time, the judge turns on and off mics confirming that all parties can hear and understand the proceedings. One defendant requires a translator and Tiras calls on a court clerk to join in, adding to the complicated but smooth interaction.
At the end of one case, he wraps up by confirming the defendant understands everything that has transpired. “Now, don’t take this the wrong way but I hope I don’t see you again, at least not in this setting.”
Since 1980, the Incline Justice Court has provided a venue for residents and visitors to settle matters including traffic violations, evictions, and temporary protection orders, amongst others. Tiras, who was elected to this position in 2006 and took office in 2007, explains that Justice Court is considered the people’s court.
“The vast majority of interaction of courts and the public is at our level,” says Tiras. “Generally speaking, we’re dealing with people that haven’t messed up too badly yet. And it gives us an opportunity to help them so they don’t continue down the path to something more severe.”
While the court hears citations and misdemeanors, cases can also involve more serious charges including felonies. “What’s important is how can we help people…so they’re not making those same wrong decisions. Punishment is a tool in the tool box but it’s the last one we want to use.”
For Tiras, this position allowed him to continue a life of public service to the community. In addition to his “wonderful relationship” with his wife of 41 years, Tiras credits his uncle as being, “a catalyst for my interest in public service. His philosophy is that if he can work to make the community a better place then he is the beneficiary.”
Following the public service lead of his uncle, Tiras served on the City Council of his hometown of Seminole, Oklahoma and was honored as Citizen of the Year. Serving as an elected judge is “my way of trying to make things better,” says Tiras.
First visiting Incline Village in the mid-1980s, he decided to make it home, moving here in 1990 with his wife, Natalie and two young children. Judge Tiras thinks the community is a great place to raise children. “They had amazing educational opportunities and could participate in extra-curricular opportunities as well,” he says.
“When we first decided to move here, we loved the mountains, trees and, of course the Lake, but what keeps us here is the people,” Tiras says. “We met many of our best friends through the schools and school events.” He continued to follow his passion for public service by taking on leadership roles with Rotary of Tahoe Incline and the Incline Village Chamber of Commerce among others.
Judge Tiras also participates in We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution Program of which Incline Village High School’s team is a perennial state and national contender. He finds assisting program advisor Milton Hyams “very rewarding” but also educational.
“Not a week goes by when they don’t teach me something,” he says. “It’s interesting watching the student progress from uncertainty to true constitutional scholars.” With students learning to research, speak, argue, and support their positions with evidence, some former We the People students may soon be representing plaintiffs or defendants before Judge Tiras’s court.
In 2019, Incline Justice Court became the first court in the state to offer virtual options for traffic court defendants. Holding court virtually was initially challenging but the process was gaining momentum before the COVID-19 pandemic suspended court services state-wide. With experience gained from virtual traffic court, Judge Tiras and his team soon took the full court calendar online, becoming the only one in the state for several months.
“The virtual program is an unqualified success,” says Tiras. He questions why defendants should take time away from work or their families to plead not guilty to a parking ticket. “I don’t need to make it inconvenient to them to have access to justice.” Defendants might attend during a lunch break at a job site or when they are physically unable to travel to Incline. If the parties are participating and present wherever they are, the court can adjudicate the matter.
“At this level we have the opportunity to figure out what we can do to help them. It’s a really rewarding position to be in,” says Tiras.
Michael McNulty is a licensed drug and alcohol counselor whose clients have appeared at Incline Justice Court. He says the benefit of having a local court in Incline is, “the efficiency of justice being satisfied promptly.” McNulty states that Tiras offers, “kindness but with a firm hand. I often hear him encourage defendants to use all of the resources that the Incline Justice Court affords,” such as attending counseling or participating in victim impact panels.
With the success and benefits of virtual court proceedings will there continue to be a need for the physical location of Incline Justice Court? Due to a lack of technology access, virtual is just not an option for some parties. “We need to be accessible to those people too. There needs to be a physical space for live trials, hearings, and payment windows,” says Tiras.
More changes are in store for the court this year. In February, the Board of County Commissioners voted 3-1 to abolish the office of the Incline Constable through an amendment to Washoe County code. Constables provide court security, pre and post trial services such as drug testing, and process serving in addition to other duties. The move by a Commissioner outside of District 1, which includes Incline Village, surprised Tiras. “What bothers me is the process,” says Tiras. He thinks the change to abolish the office of the constable is not good governance. “Let’s talk to the stakeholders, find out what the goals of this change are.”
Some see the elimination of the constable office by the County Commission as a step towards eliminating the Incline Village township and therefore the court. “I don’t think it would be appropriate for a judge not from Incline to adjudicate Incline matters,” says Tiras. “They don’t have the understanding of the community, the community standards, the geography. It would be a huge step backwards if we didn’t have a local judge.”
The court will also move to a new location at 855 Alder Ave., the former library building and current Incline Village Community Center. Since 1982, the court has held space at the Centerpoint Executive Offices building at 865 Tahoe Blvd. The court will now move into a county-owned building for the first time in its history.
As the Incline Village-Crystal Bay Township Justice Court deals with transitions over the coming year, the court continues to take each opportunity to help its constituents. “Consistency is fair. And justice is that people are treated the same throughout the process,” says Tiras. By using innovations like holding court virtually, Judge Tiras can offer the consistency of access to justice from Incline Village that reaches beyond the community.
*This profile appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of LIVE.WORK.PLAY. magazine.