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Las Vegas City Hall as seen on Thursday, March 16, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent

In response to a recent Nevada Supreme Court ruling giving misdemeanor domestic violence defendants the right to request a jury trial, the City of Las Vegas has proposed a new ordinance that would allow city prosecutors to charge individuals under the municipal code with the misdemeanor crime of “battery which constitutes domestic violence.”

Although public defenders say they are now planning to request jury trials for all their clients accused of misdemeanor domestic violence, local governments across the state are scrambling for ways to comply with the order without clogging their courts. Henderson and North Las Vegas also are considering similar ordinances to work around the new requirement to provide jury trials.

“The Supreme Court's decision created both logistical and jurisdictional dilemmas for the City of Las Vegas and other incorporated cities in Nevada,” Deputy City Attorney Jeff Dorocak said Monday at a “recommending meeting,” where a subcommittee of council members receive public input and decide whether to continue the hearing to a future date or formulate a recommendation to the City Council for passage, rejection or amendment.

“Logistically, the city's municipal court presently has no jury administration, no ability to summon a juror pool and even no jury boxes.” 

The state Supreme Court’s decision stemmed from 2015 legislation prohibiting anyone convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from possessing a firearm. Last month, the court decided that confiscation of firearms was a serious-enough punishment to elevate misdemeanor domestic violence from a petty offense to a higher-level offense, thus requiring jury trials.

The dilemma is mainly how to handle the expected influx of jury trials, which will now be available to potentially tens of thousands more people each year who are facing charges of misdemeanor domestic violence. According to a 2017 report, law enforcement made more than 21,000 arrests in Clark County for domestic violence crimes.

Dorocak emphasized that the city attorneys who wrote the proposed ordinance based it on the state’s domestic violence laws with one big difference. By defining “battery which constitutes domestic violence,” apart from the federal definition of domestic violence (which the Nevada Supreme Court used in its ruling), the city can forgo the jury trial. 

The plan has attracted critics, including SafeNest, which is the largest domestic violence victim services provider in the state.

“This ordinance does mirror state statute up until it deletes the provisions on weapon confiscation for those convicted of battery domestic violence,” said Strategies 360 lobbyist William Horne on behalf of the company’s client, SafeNest.

Horne added that the bill also circumvents the Supreme Court’s order to give each domestic violence battery defendant a jury trial if they request it.

“If you pass this ordinance, the first time that you do, I believe that defense counsel's going to sue that it's an improper use of the ordinance and we're going to come to a complete standstill and we haven't gotten anything resolved,” Horne said.

Horne and Liz Ortenburger, CEO of SafeNest, urged the council to postpone a vote until they can meet with community stakeholders and possibly request a special session of the Legislature, which meets only in odd-numbered years for 120 days. Domestic violence groups, who supported the original 2015 legislation that allows confiscation of weapons, now fear that the court’s ruling could have unintended consequences such as defendants pleading down to lower offenses and avoiding accountability on domestic violence charges, or ordinances such as the City of Las Vegas has proposed.

“Simply removing one portion of [the law] to make it work logistically for the city is not the right move for victims. And our homicide rate, not only of our victims, but [also] of our [law enforcement] officers, will increase,” Ortenburger said.

Following Ortenburger, three volunteers from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America commented in opposition to the proposed ordinance, saying it was evading the intent of the 2015 legislation. City of Las Vegas Senior Deputy Attorney Martin Orsinelli responded to the comments by saying that the bill provided an essential first step to convicting domestic violence charges.

“We don't want defendants to have guns. We get it. But don't forget you don't get there unless you get a conviction for domestic violence,” Orsinelli said. “This will allow us to hold defendants accountable until the Legislature does something.”

According to Orsinelli, the City of Las Vegas has been charging people with simple batteries since the Supreme Court decision came down, which are a lower offense than a misdemeanor for domestic violence, because the city court cannot handle the volume of jury trials that would result from filing more serious misdemeanor charges.

Councilman Brian Knudsen requested a 30-day hold on the proposed ordinance, until the City Council could further consult with stakeholders and other agencies affected by the court order. Councilwoman and Mayor Pro Tem Michele Fiore requested to move the item to the City Council meeting on Wednesday for a final vote. 

The recommending committee voted unanimously to pass the item along for a final vote on Wednesday.

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