Steps in a Criminal Case in Las Vegas Justice Courts

Where Will My Case Be Heard?

After having criminal charges filed against them in Las Vegas, people naturally wonder what is next. While other types of criminal courts exist, the vast majority of people charged in Las Vegas will have their cases heard in one of the Las Vegas Justice Courts, whose courtrooms are located at the downtown Regional Justice Center. All Justice Courts in Nevada have jurisdiction to hear simple misdemeanor cases, however; they also perform the critical function of holding preliminary hearings on cases which constitute gross misdemeanors and felonies.

Definition Review:

  • Simple Misdemeanor: charges punishable by up to six months in Clark County Jail
  • Gross Misdemeanors: charges punishable up to one year in Clark County Jail
  • Felonies: charges punishable of sentences greater than one year in Nevada State Prison

If certain requirements are met, gross misdemeanor and felony cases go straight to District Court instead of Justice Court. These courts conduct jury trials, accept pleas in gross misdemeanor and felony cases, and also sentence persons who either plead or are found guilty of gross misdemeanor and felony offenses. The District Courts which have jurisdiction over felony and gross misdemeanor cases which originate in Justice Court, also sit in the down Regional Justice Center. The following outline is geared toward answering the critical and important question of what happens next, regardless of the type of charge a person finds himself or herself facing in this particular court system. An additional objective is to provide simple, plain English explanations to the terms and steps associated with the state court criminal case process.

Step 1: Initial Arraignment in Justice Court

  • You appear in Justice Court with your lawyer, or if you wish, your lawyer appears for you
  • You or your lawyer are provided with a criminal complaint which outlines the charges​
  • Get a Trial Date (for misdemeanors) or Preliminary Hearing date (for Felonies or Gross Misdemeanors)
  • Get a packet of discovery (evidence) pertaining to the case

Persons, whose charges are in the Las Vegas Justice Court system, will have their first court appearance at one of the Justice Courts in the downtown Regional Justice Center. Either a person will appear personally, or he or she will have already hired an attorney and the attorney will appear for the charged individual. This first appearance is referred to as an arraignment. In general terms, it is an appearance where the person is given a copy of the charges, advised of his or her rights, and given either a trial date, if the crime is a simple misdemeanor, or a preliminary hearing date if the charge is a gross misdemeanor or felony. The majority of the time a packet of discovery is also available to be picked up at a Justice Court arraignment. This is especially important if you are going to plead “not guilty”, as you and your attorney will have to build your case for the second step of the process.

Definition Review:

  • Justice Court Arraignment: The first court appearance where the defendant or his or her lawyer is given a copy of the charges, and given either a trial date, if the crime is a simple misdemeanor, or a preliminary hearing date, if the charge is a gross misdemeanor or felony
  • Packet of Discovery: Police reports, witness statements and other items that must be provided to the defense

The second appearance in Justice Court for persons charged with a misdemeanor offense will typically be the trial date. Because under Nevada law Justice Courts have jurisdiction over misdemeanors, persons charged with a misdemeanor offense in Justice Court will have all their entire case resolved at this level. This means that persons charged with common offenses such as misdemeanor battery domestic violence and misdemeanor driving under the influence, will make their first appearance, have their trial, and be sentenced if convicted, all by a Justice of the Peace.

Step 2(a): If Charged with a Misdemeanor

  • Typically, you come back to Justice Court for a 2nd appearance, or “trial”
  • Enter a negotiated plea or have a trial​
  • Trial heard by Justice of the Peace – no jury
  • Are found guilty or not guilty of charges
  • If guilty, you are sentenced
  • Usually, all of this takes place during your 2nd and final appearance

During this second step in the process, on the day of trial in Justice Court, typically, a person will either enter a plea if the case is negotiated, or have a trial. A trial in Justice Court is a bench trial – this means there is no jury to weigh in on your case. It is a trial where a judge rather than a jury decides the factual issues pertaining to whether a person is guilty of a charge. Unfortunately, unlike some other states, persons charged with simple misdemeanors in Nevada are not entitled to having a jury composed of persons from the community decide their case. Instead, in Nevada, the Justice of the Peace decides the issue of whether the prosecution proved the charge beyond a reasonable doubt and decides if you are “guilty” of the crime.

Step 2(b): If Charged with a Felony or Gross Misdemeanor

  • Typically, you come back to Justice Court for a 2nd appearance, or “preliminary hearing”
  • The Justice of the Peace hears witnesses and reviews evidence from both sides
  • Looks for probable cause that you committed the crime
  • If probable cause is found, you will be sent to District Court and set a date for a jury trial
  • If probable cause not found, charges will be dismissed
  • Note: A preliminary hearing is not a trial

If a person is charged with a felony or gross misdemeanor the second appearance in Justice Court is usually the preliminary hearing to see if “slight or marginal evidence” is present. A preliminary hearing is a probable cause hearing. That means that after hearing witnesses and considering evidence presented in the hearing, the Justice of the Peace must determine if “slight or marginal evidence” exists which shows that the person accused of the charge, committed the offense. This is an extremely low standard. So long as the judge finds slight or marginal evidence that the crime occurred, the accused will be “held to answer”- meaning sent to District Court to defend against the charges. Usually, probable cause is found to send the case to District Court. Sometimes however, charges are dropped or dismissed as lacking probable cause. It is important to realize that a preliminary hearing is not a trial, even though the prosecution calls witnesses and the defense lodges objections and is able to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses. It is simply a hearing to determine if probable cause exists to send the defendant to the higher court to defend the gross misdemeanor or felony charges.

However most of the time, felony or gross misdemeanor cases are negotiated and result in either a plea to a lesser misdemeanor (sending you down to Justice Court), or a waiver of the preliminary hearing so that the parties can then go to District Court and have a District Court Judge accept a plea to a felony or gross misdemeanor offense. Generally, waiving a preliminary hearing occurs when the case is negotiated to an offense – felony or gross misdemeanor – which by law must occur in District Court. Persons charged with these types of offenses have a legal right to have the State show probable cause that a crime occurred and that the defendant committed the offense. When a case is negotiated, the need for a preliminary hearing no longer exists, and a waiver of the right to a preliminary hearing is appropriate. In these situations, the parties will put the negotiation on the record and the defendant will acknowledge that he or she waives his right to a preliminary hearing. This is very common.

Grand Jury

  • A Grand Jury is a group of people who hear evidence from Prosecutors and decide if probable cause exists to send someone to District Court for a jury trial
  • A Grand Jury, like the Justice of the Peace, looks for probable cause that a crime occurred
  • If all 12 agree the crime occurred, a formal charge will be returned
  • You then go to District Court for your Arraignment

Nevada law allows another way persons can be charged with felonies and gross misdemeanors which is completely separate from the Justice Court system. A Grand Jury is a body of persons who serve as grand jurors for a period of time and hear evidence pertaining to alleged crimes. In Las Vegas, the grand jury meets in private weekly and considers evidence presented by prosecutors who seek to establish probable cause that a crime occurred. The slight or marginal standard pertaining to preliminary hearings applies equally to grand juror deliberations. The proceedings are recorded by a court certified reporter. Along with the presentation of witnesses and evidence, the prosecutor will also instruct the grand jurors on the law pertaining to the charges presented. After considering all this, if the grand jury finds probable cause to believe that a crime occurred, they will return an indictment. This is similar to a Justice of the Peace making a finding of probable cause after considering evidence presented in a preliminary hearing. So long as 12 grand jurors agree, an indictment will be issued. Typically, when an indictment is returned, the defendant’s lawyer will be notified, and a District Court Arraignment date will be set.

Step 3: Only for Felonies and Gross Misdemeanors

  • You go to District Court for your “arraignment”
  • You review the charges and your plea
  • If guilty, you are given a sentencing date where you come back and find out if you will have probation, or jail time
  • If pleading not guilty, you will have a trial (and have the right to a jury of your peers)
  • All 12 jurors must agree you did the crime in order to be found guilty
  • If they don't all agree, a mistrial is declared and the case will go to trial again at some point in the future

Those who either waive their preliminary hearing, or probable cause is found to hold them to answer on the charges filed against them, will be given a date to make a first appearance in District Court. Similar to the first appearance in Justice Court, the first appearance in District Court is also known as an arraignment. At this hearing, a defendant will be advised of the charges against them, and either plead guilty - if the case is negotiated - or plead not guilty. If a defendant pleads guilty, the District Court Judge will discuss the terms of the plea with the defendant and ask a number of questions to determine if the plea is being made knowingly and voluntarily. If the Judge determines that the guilty plea is legally sufficient, a sentencing date will be given. At sentencing, the Judge, after considering various factors and hearing from the parties, decides an appropriate sentence. Generally two outcomes are possible: incarceration or probation.

If the defendant pleads not guilty, he or she will have the choice to have either a speedy trial, or a trial in the ordinary course. All criminal cases in District Court include the right to a jury trial. Everyone accused of a crime in a Nevada District Court has a legal right to have a speedy trial. A speedy trial is a trial which is occurs within 60 days of the District Court arraignment. This right is absolute which means that every criminal defendant can demand to have his or her case tried within 60 days of their first appearance in a Nevada District Court.

Jury Trial Significance in Nevada District Court

In Las Vegas, jury trials for state charges are held in the Regional Justice Center. Various District Court Judges are constantly hearing jury trials which involve gross misdemeanor and felony charges. A jury trial is perhaps the most important portion of any criminal case. If a case is not negotiated, the prosecution must prove its charges to a jury of 12 Clark County residents. This means that each and every element of each criminal offense must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to each of the 12 jurors. To convict a criminal defendant, unanimity is required. In other words, all 12 jurors must agree that the charge was proven by the high standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. The standard of beyond a reasonable doubt is defined by Nevada Revised Statute 175.211 Nevada law requires that this definition, and no other, be provided to the jury. It is by this definition that the jury must decide if the prosecution has proven all elements of the charges filed against a particular defendant.

The Important Role of an Attorney in Protecting Your Rights During a Jury Trial

At trial a defendant has certain absolute rights. These rights have their origin in the United States Constitution, specifically the Amendments commonly known as the “Bill of Rights.” Among these valuable rights, the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses for the prosecution and the right to testify in one’s own defense are perhaps two of the most important.

Your defense attorney will have the opportunity to question and challenge each witness the prosecution presents. This enables biases and weaknesses in the prosecution’s case to be exposed, highlighted and ultimately considered by the jury.

Also critical is the right of a criminal defendant to testify in his or her own defense. Persons charged with a crime have an absolute right to testify in their trial and to address the charges against them. Equally important is the constitutional rule which allows a criminal defendant to not testify and to not have that fact held against them. In the event a person decides after consulting with his criminal defense lawyer not to testify, upon request, the District Court Judge will advise the jurors that under the United States Constitution, the fact that a person decides not to testify in his own defense cannot be held against him. In other words, the jury cannot infer or assume that a person is guilty because he or she declined to testify in a criminal trial. There are all sorts of good reasons why a person completely innocent of a crime would decide not to testify. Because of this reality, this rule is in force in all criminal proceedings nationwide.

Hire the Best Criminal Defense Lawyers in Las Vegas

This brief overview should not be construed as a thorough explanation of the Las Vegas state court criminal trial process. It is simply a snapshot of some of the highlights associated with the local Las Vegas criminal justice system. Of course, it goes without saying that if you or someone close to you is charged in the Las Vegas state court system, hiring the best criminal defense lawyer is essential. Your liberty, livelihood and standing in the community in this situation are all in jeopardy. Making the wrong decision about who to have represent your interests when charged with a crime can be, and frequently is, catastrophic. If charged with a crime in Las Vegas, call the lawyers at Oronoz, Ericsson & Gaffney LLC. We have a significant, provable track record of success defending very serious charges. If charged, call us immediately. We can help.

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