The procedure by which a criminal case is litigated in the courts of Las Vegas and throughout Clark County, Nevada, differs depending upon which court is handling your case. Which court has jurisdiction over your case depends upon two factors:
- the type of offense (misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor, and/or felony) and;
- the exact geographic location where the alleged offense occurred.
There are three types of courts handling newly filed criminal cases in Las Vegas and Clark County, Nevada. These are Municipal (or city) Courts, Justice Court, and District Court.
Las Vegas Municipal Court, Henderson Municipal Court and North Las Vegas Municipal Court are all city courts operated by their respective city governments. They handle ONLY misdemeanors (including traffic tickets). For a municipal court to have jurisdiction over a case, the offense must have occurred within the city limits of the given municipality. For instance, a first or second offense Battery Domestic Violence or DUI charge (which are misdemeanors) occurring within Las Vegas city limits, will necessarily be brought in the Las Vegas Municipal Court. A person arrested on such a charge will be booked into the Las Vegas City Jail – NOT the Clark County Detention Center.
In the past, each municipality has had its own jail. However, the City of North Las Vegas recently closed its jail due to budget constraints. The City of North Las Vegas now houses its inmates at the Clark County Detention Center. If you need help finding out if someone is in custody in a Las Vegas area municipal jail, you may contact our office at 702-405-0001 or visit our Las Vegas Jail & Bail Bond Information page.
Cases in municipal courts are prosecuted by City Attorneys. These are different offices than the Clark County District Attorney’s Office. Thus, if you have charges before both the municipal courts and justice courts, your defense attorney will be dealing with two different prosecuting agencies and two different prosecutors. This is important to keep in mind because charges arising out of the same incident may be split between both a municipal court and a county court. Such a scenario can pose both logistical and tactical challenges that should be recognized by a seasoned defense attorney and discussed with you at your initial consultation.
Municipal Courts handle only Misdemeanors, which are typically less complex than Gross Misdemeanors or Felonies, and the process itself has fewer steps. While each of the courts (and judges within each court) may vary the process slightly, cases are normally set for trial at the Arraignment. Discovery is usually obtained at the arraignment or can be ordered and picked up shortly thereafter. Some courts prefer to set the case for a Pretrial Conference several weeks after arraignment in order to check the progress of the case and determine which cases are going to resolve without the need for a trial. If the parties believe the case is not going to resolve either through a plea agreement or the prosecution dropping the case altogether, the case will then be set for trial.
Trials in municipal courts are generally short because there is no right to trial by jury for misdemeanors. The cases are heard by an elected municipal court judge and decided the same day.
Justice Court is a lower level court that handles Misdemeanor cases that do not fall within the jurisdiction of the municipal courts. Justice Court also handles Felony and Gross Misdemeanor Arraignments and Preliminary Hearings. There are several Justice Courts in Clark County, Nevada, including Las Vegas Township, Henderson Justice Court and North Las Vegas Justice Court. These Courts also handle various civil matters including landlord – tenant disputes. They are normally extremely busy courts which may appear to have a chaotic atmosphere to those not familiar to the system.
Most cases brought in the Justice Courts of Clark County are brought by the Clark County District Attorneys’ Office. Although a few select cases are brought by the State Attorney General. Cases prosecuted by the State Attorney General generally concern consumer fraud or fraud against a state agency.
Misdemeanors in Justice Court
Misdemeanor cases in Justice Courts are handled much like they are in Municipal Court. An arraignment is held, discovery is given to the defense attorney, and the case is set for trial. In most cases, so long as the defendant is represented by an attorney, the defendant need not appear for the arraignment. However, without an attorney, he MUST appear at the arraignment or else a bench warrant will issue and bail or bond will be forfeited.
Felonies in Justice Court
Procedurally, felonies are handled much differently than misdemeanors. In most cases, felony cases start out in a Justice Court as a result of a Criminal Complaint being filed after an arrest or investigation. An arraignment will be held where, after having an opportunity to read the criminal complaint, a Not Guilty Plea is entered into the record. At this point, depending on the circumstances, other matters may be brought to the court’s attention. These other matters might include such things as the bail amount and conditions of release pending the conclusion of the case. Discovery is handed over the defense attorney in court during the Arraignment. Also during the Arraignment, a preliminary hearing (Prelim) will be scheduled. If the defendant is in custody, and is likely to remain in custody because he is unable to make bail, the Prelim is normally set to take place within 15 days. If the defendant is out of custody, the Court will set the Prelim weeks, and sometimes months out into the future. The time between the Arraignment and Prelim, though sometimes lengthy, is important. During this time, the defense attorney is able to review the discovery received at the Arraignment and meet with the client in order to formulate a defense strategy with the client. More discovery may also be needed and subpoenas to obtain evidence and compel witnesses to appear in court to testify can be issued.
From the perspective of the Court and the Prosecution, the purpose of the Prelim is very limited. Strictly speaking, the purpose is to determine whether there is probable case to believe 1) a crime was committed and 2) whether the defendant is the one (or one of several) who committed the crime. At the Prelim, the State will call witnesses, normally police officers who investigated the case and/or the alleged victim or other witnesses to testify against the defendant. At this point in the process, the burden on the State is very low – only “a scintilla” of evidence is required. In plain English, if there is ANY evidence linking the defendant to the crime, the State has met its burden of proof for this stage of the proceeding. If the Court finds the State has met its burden of proof, the Judge will then “bind the defendant over” to the District Court – which is just another way of saying the case will be moved to the District Court for the purpose of having a trail on another day. In the rare case the Court does not bind the defendant over, the case is dismissed. In cases involving multiple charges, it is not uncommon to have some charges bound over while other charges are dismissed.
Even though the Prelim is very difficult for the defense to win, it is nonetheless a critical stage of the case because the defense attorney gets to cross examine all of the witnesses who testify at the Prelim. This is normally the only chance the defense lawyer will have to cross examine or even meet the witnesses for the State prior to trial. But, a well prepared and skilled defense attorney can use this opportunity to completely turn the tide in his client’s favor at a Prelim. A skilled defense attorney can often use the evidence and testimony gained at a Prelim to either prevail on a motion or win the case at trial. Evidence and testimony gained at the Prelim can also be used to convince the State that a deal favorable to the defense is advantageous.
Clark County District Court
If the case is ‘bound over’ from Justice Court, a new arraignment will be set in District Court. You, with your defense counsel will then appear to again enter a plea to the charges, which are now presented in a different form called an “Information.” An Information is nothing more than a Criminal Complaint filed in District Court following a preliminary hearing in Justice Court. After entering a Not Guilty plea at the District Court Arraignment, the Court will issue future court dates including a Calendar Call and Trial date. In cases where the State and defense attorney reach a favorable deal for the client, then you will enter a Guilty plea at the District Court arraignment and the Court will set a future date for sentencing.
Although this is a rather simplistic overview of the very lengthy and complex criminal litigation process in Las Vegas, it is intended to give you a general idea of how your case might proceed through the criminal justice system. Of course, it is important to remember that every case is different, and every case will have its own unique facts or circumstances that can affect this process.
If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime, let the lawyers at The Wright Law Group, P.C. help you. Our attorneys have more than 25 years of experience helping clients navigate the Las Vegas criminal courts. Call us today at (702) 405-0001 to schedule a free consultation.