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 versus gross misdemeanor and/of felony) and
- the exact geographic location where the alleged offense is said to have taken place.
There are three types of courts handling newly filed criminal cases in Las Vegas and Clark County, Nevada. These are Municipal (or city) Courts and the County 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 the municipal court to have jurisdiction over a case, such offense must have occurred within the city limits its municipality. For instance, a first or second offense Battery Domestic Violence or DUI charge (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 -until recently when the City of North Las Vegas closed its jail due to budget constraints. It 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 Jail and Bail Information page.
Cases in municipal courts are prosecuted by City Attorneys. These are different offices than of the Clark County District Attorney. 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 as in many occasions 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 -meaning they last only a few hours. There is no right to trial by jury for misdemeanors, which is why they do not last several days as the process for picking a jury and arguing motions is very time consuming. The cases are heard by an elected municipal court judge and decided the same day.
Clark County Justice Courts
Justice Courts are lower level courts which handle Misdemeanor cases that do not fall within the jurisdiction of the municipal courts, as well as well 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. This is whether they are brought in Las Vegas Township or Laughlin Justice Court – or any other Justice Court located in Clark County. A few select cases are brought by the State Attorney General, and these generally concern consumer fraud or fraud against a State agency.
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, he 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.
Procedurally, felonies are handled altogether differently than misdemeanors. In most cases, felony cases start out in a Justice Court. In this scenario, a Criminal Complaint is filed either after an arrest or investigation. An arraignment is 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 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. At this point, a preliminary hearing (Prelim) is calendared. 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. Otherwise, if the defendant is out of custody, the Court may set the Prelim weeks to months out into the future. Between the time of the arraignment and the Prelim, the client and the defense attorney can meet in order to formulate the defense of the case. More discovery may 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. The burden on the State at this point is very low – only “a scintilla” of evidence is required. In plain English, if there is ANY evidence presented 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. It is not uncommon to have a mixture of charges that are bound over and some that are dismissed.
Even though the Prelim is very difficult for the defense to win – It is nonetheless a critical stage of the case– where the defense may ultimately obtain the evidence or testimony it needs to either win the case at trial or Motion – or to convince the State that a deal favorable to the defense is advantageous. 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. The defense attorney gets to cross examine them all. 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. A well prepared and skilled defense attorney can completely turn the tide in his client’s favor at a preliminary hearing.
Clark County District Court
If the case is ‘bound over’ 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” – which is nothing more than a Criminal Complaint filed in District Court after a preliminary hearing. After a Not Guilty Plea has been entered, the Court will issue several dates including those for Calendar Call and Felony Jury Trial.
This has been a brief and rather simplistic overview of the complex criminal litigation process in Las Vegas, and is intended just to give you a roadmap of how a case proceeds. Of course, each case, no matter how big or how small, will have its own particularities. I would be pleased to speak with you about your case at a free consultation, and answer all of your questions. Feel free to call me at 702-405-0001 to schedule an appointment or use our contact form to the right.