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Las Vegas stops prosecuting misdemeanor domestic violence cases

Updated October 2, 2019 - 6:33 pm

The city of Las Vegas has stopped charging people with misdemeanor domestic violence in the wake of a Nevada Supreme Court decision that said defendants in such cases were entitled to jury trials.

Instead, the city is prosecuting those types of cases as simple battery, Las Vegas City Attorney Brad Jerbic said through a city spokesman — a move that victim advocates and defense attorneys say puts domestic violence victims in greater danger.

“It’s about 10-steps backwards for domestic violence victims within the city of Las Vegas right now,” said Liz Ortenburger, CEO of the domestic violence prevention advocacy group SafeNest.

While both are misdemeanor offenses, domestic violence convictions in Nevada carry certain requirements that simple battery does not, such as mandatory counseling for the defendant and enhancement to a felony charge for the third offense.

Las Vegas Municipal Court handles roughly 5,000 misdemeanor domestic violence cases each year, and they are typically processed via trials by judge.

But the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in September that defendants in such cases were entitled to a jury trial because a 2015 state law barred possession of a firearm for those convicted, and that potential loss of a constitutional right made the crime a “serious offense.”

Local and state officials, including Jerbic and Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford, have said that the high court’s decision is likely to cause drastic changes to Nevada’s justice system because the municipal courts are ill-equipped to handle any jury trials, let alone hundreds each month.

The city also has proposed an ordinance that would create a new local crime of “battery which constitutes domestic violence,” which would maintain certain penalties for the crime under state law but remove the firearms ban on which the Supreme Court decision was based.

“This has put everyone into a tailspin,” Susan Meuschke, executive director of the Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, said of the Supreme Court’s decision.

Meuschke said it is hard to predict exactly what the ruling will lead to, but she is worried that it could lead to an increase in domestic homicides or a decrease in arrests for domestic violence while local governments try to navigate the new requirements.

“The bottom line is victims will be in harm’s way, and we need to figure out how to help people get through this time,” she said.

John G. Watkins, an attorney with the Pariente Law Firm who worked on the case that spurred the Supreme Court case, said he believes that the city’s attempts to avoid the firearms ban will not work because federal regulations still prohibit those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes from owning a gun.

And because of that federal regulation, the defendant still should have the right to a jury trial, Watkins said.

John Piro, chief deputy Clark County public defender, said the moves show that municipal governments want to keep those cases in their courts rather than allow the local justice courts to take on the jury trials for which they are more equipped.

“They are bending over backwards to deny people their constitutional right in order to maintain their fine and fee structure,” Piro said. “What they’re doing is putting profit over public safety.”

Ortenburger said she understands that local governments are “scrambling for a solution” after the court’s ruling, but she is worried that they are getting to the solution at the expense of citizens.

Nevada typically ranks at or near the top of states with the highest rate of domestic violence killings. Ortenburger said the city’s decision to change how it prosecutes misdemeanor cases is likely to alter crime data, which then could impact federal money that is awarded to combat domestic violence.

“We’re not at all working to fix the epidemic,” Ortenburger said. “We’re making a change because it’s convenient for the municipalities.”

Contact capital Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3820. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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