Las Vegas officials will consider prosecuting misdemeanor domestic violence cases under a newly drafted city ordinance that would not ban those convicted of the crime from possessing firearms.
The proposed ordinance, to be introduced Wednesday, would run counter to state law but is an effort not to overload the city’s Municipal Court with jury trials it is ill-equipped to handle.
The Nevada Supreme Court ruled this month that defendants in such cases were entitled to a jury trial because a 2015 state law that banned gun possession if convicted made the offense a “serious” crime that affected a fundamental constitutional right.
But the prospect of holding jury trials for some 5,000 misdemeanor domestic violence cases handled each year by Las Vegas Municipal Court concerned City Attorney Brad Jerbic, who said in an interview the local court lacks the capacity and staff to perform that trial volume.
“There will never be a conviction under state law in the city of Las Vegas because of the logistics of it,” he said.
Jerbic said that cases typically resolved within a matter of weeks would be protracted to six months to a year, or even longer, putting victims at risk of threats or more harm at the hands of their abusers.
So Jerbic is recommending establishing a misdemeanor offense under city code called “battery which constitutes domestic violence.” It will maintain penalties under state law for the crime but leave out the firearms ban that prompted the Supreme Court decision.
If the bill is passed by the City Council, Jerbic said, his office plans to prosecute cases under the Las Vegas code with an intent to “legislate around” the high court decision, which he said he respected.
“They can’t pass laws that are already on the books by the Legislature,” said attorney John G. Watkins, of Pariente Law Firm.
Watkins worked on the case of Christopher Andersen, whose petition to the state Supreme Court spurred the recent decision. Andersen argued he had been denied his right to put his case before a jury in Las Vegas Municipal Court.
The city’s proposed ordinance “is nothing more than an attempt … to get around a constitutional requirement and just doesn’t fly in law,” Watkins said.
Attorney Michael D. Pariente, who also represented Andersen, called the ordinance “absurd, pathetic and desperate” and vowed to take the matter to the Nevada Supreme Court or the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
Liz Ortenburger, CEO of SafeNest, a domestic violence prevention advocacy group, warned that the city’s approach was misguided, though well-intentioned.
“I don’t think the answer is watering down the charge to a simple battery,” Ortenburger said.
She said a third offense under city code would not be a felony, the way it would be under state law. She added that state data would be skewed and might offer the false sense that domestic violence crimes were dipping, which would hurt funding.
Even so, she acknowledged that the drain on local court resources would be felt in both urban and rural communities in Nevada.
For Ortenburger and Jerbic, the final resolution might sit with state lawmakers who they called upon to review Senate Bill 175, the 2015 omnibus legislation that barred individuals from owning or possessing firearms if convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence.
The bill also expanded some gun rights and drew Democratic opposition. Messages left with two of the bill’s primary sponsors were not returned Friday.
Ultimately, Jerbic said, the primary goals were to avoid a backlog of domestic violence cases and not be forced to take space from the specialty courts, which serve substance abusers, women and others and occupy at least three of the six municipal courtrooms.
“I think it’s the best answer,” he said of the plan, but he admitted there was no perfect one.