Updated October 16, 2019 - 2:31 pm
The cities of Las Vegas and No
Las Vegas officials said the decision could face legal challenges from critics of the new policy.
In a 6-1 vote, the Las Vegas City Council approved the ordinance Wednesday in response to a recent state Supreme Court ruling that requires defendants in such cases to be afforded the option of a jury trial. Councilman Cedric Crear voted against the plan.
The high court ruled a month ago that defendants were entitled to a trial after deeming the offense no longer “petty” but a “serious” one because of a 2015 state law that banned convicted individuals from possessing firearms.
Officials in Las Vegas have lamented that the city’s municipal court is ill-equipped to hold trials because it does not have jury boxes or administration, plus there are not enough city prosecutors or judges, nor a means to summon a jury pool. In addition, state law doesn’t allow for jury trials in municipal courts.
Other cities in Nevada face similar burdens. Henderson unanimously passed a similar ordinance Tuesday, while North Las Vegas passed its ordinance Wednesday night in a 3-1 vote. Councilman Isaac Barron cast the lone vote against the measure but did not explain his opposition. Councilwoman Pamela Goynes-Brown was not present for the vote.
“Without this solution, battery domestic violence that happens in this city cannot and will not be prosecuted, and victims will be left with limited criminal legal resource,” North Las Vegas City Attorney Micaela Moore told council members.
Both Las Vegas and North Las Vegas prosecutors have been charging domestic violence defendants with the lesser charge of simple battery to avoid triggering a jury trial. The city laws approved Wednesday, covering what’s called “battery which constitutes domestic violence,” will restore all the penalties of the state statute with the exception of the gun provision.
“This should not be a controversial bill,” Las Vegas Councilwoman Michele Fiore said. “It is a compromise bill that will protect the vulnerable domestic violence victims.”
Fiore added that a third conviction under the new city ordinance will be a felony and would bar the individual from possessing a firearm. However, that penalty would not be imposed by continuing to charge suspects with simple battery.
Though Las Vegas officials say it’s the best option to protect victims until they find a long-term solution amid a logistical quagmire, domestic violence prevention and gun control advocacy groups have argued the city is putting government convenience ahead of victim safety.
They have accused the city of trying to illegally circumvent the state statute and of weakening a safety net in a state that routinely ranks high for domestic violence in the U.S.
Las Vegas carries 30 percent of all domestic violence misdemeanors in the state, according to Liz Ortenburger, CEO of SafeNest, a domestic violence prevention advocacy group. She said 17 of 19 statewide domestic homicides in 2017 occurred within Las Vegas city limits, and 10 were by gunshot.
Acknowledging there was no easy solution to the city’s predicament, she warned that guns were used to threaten domestic victims and called for the city to delay a decision on the new ordinance.
Crear similarly requested that city officials find a solution more “harmonious” with positions taken by domestic violence prevention and gun control groups and to petition the state Supreme Court to pause its decision. City Attorney Brad Jerbic said the city was unable to make that request to the high court.
Meanwhile, Metropolitan Police Department lobbyist Chuck Callaway said the state Supreme Court decision will not change what officers do in the field. Callaway raised concerns about the removal of the firearm provision. Yet he also worried that charging defendants with simple battery might enable them to slip through the cracks.