Las Vegas Sun

December 5, 2019

Currently: 57° — Complete forecast

Las Vegas approves domestic violence charge that doesn’t take offenders’ guns

Fremont Street Experience Buskers Meeting

City Attorney Brad Jerbic, pictured here in 2015, is one of many city officials who advocated for the creation of a new municipal charge, “battery which constitutes domestic violence.”

The Las Vegas City Council voted 6-1 today to create a new criminal charge that will allow the city to prosecute domestic violence misdemeanor cases without requiring defendants to give up their guns.

The measure runs counter to state law, which forbids those convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence from possessing firearms, but it seemingly puts the city in compliance with a Nevada Supreme Court ruling. The court ruled in September that because those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors must surrender their firearms, they are entitled to a jury trial upon request.

But Southern Nevada’s incorporated cities lack the resources to perform jury trials. Las Vegas Municipal Court has no ability to summon a jury and has no jury boxes, officials from the city attorney’s office told council.

Since the high court ruling came out Sept. 12, the city has stopped prosecuting any domestic violence misdemeanors, instead charging those accused of such crimes with simple battery, Deputy City Attorney Jeffry Dorocak said. That charge doesn’t carry as much weight or include measures intended to protect victims and rehabilitate offenders, such as requiring them to attend counseling.

In order to resume prosecuting cases of domestic violence misdemeanors without jury trials, the city created the new charge of “battery which constitutes domestic violence.” The charge will still allow the city court to require alcohol and drug treatment and counseling, to collect fines, and to charge individuals with a felony after three misdemeanor charges, but the court won’t take guns away from offenders.

Acknowledging that the solution is imperfect, officials from the city attorney’s office described the new charge as the best temporary solution in light of the Nevada Supreme Court ruling. The new charge will also better protect victims of domestic violence than a simple battery charge, said city attorney Brad Jerbic.

“I’m highly recommending (this) because I think it is at least something more than we have right now,” Jerbic said.

Councilmen Stavros Anthony and Brian Knudsen, City Councilwomen Victoria Seaman and Olivia Diaz, Mayor Carolyn Goodman and Mayor Pro-Tem Michele Fiore approved the new charge. The lone dissenting vote came from Ward 5 Councilman Cedric Crear, who said he wanted the city to seek other options before sidestepping the state requirement of taking firearms away from convicted abusers.

“I wouldn’t want to proceed with something that does not have some type of gun provision in it,” Crear said.

Advocates for domestic violence victims and for gun safety as well as Metro Police raised similar concerns about the city’s new charge, arguing that Las Vegas should instead find a way to conduct jury trials or call a special session with the Nevada Legislature.

“We obviously have a great concern about folks being able to keep firearms,” said Metro lobbyist and police sergeant Chuck Callaway. “The Legislature needs to convene and hold a special session on this.”

William Horne, an attorney representing the domestic violence resource organization SafeNest, suggested that the city request a stay from the Supreme Court given that Las Vegas lacks the resources to comply with the ruling. If granted, that could give the city more time to determine how to conduct jury trials for domestic violence misdemeanor cases.

“I haven’t seen a petition to the Supreme Court to say, ‘Can we have some time?’” Horne said.

Jerbic countered that the high court would be unlikely to grant a stay, adding that the city will continue to work with the county, other municipalities, the state and the District Attorney’s Office to find a permanent solution for protecting domestic violence victims. Calling a special session is not out of the question if all parties can agree on the best way forward, he said.

“If there is a special session, I want everyone singing from the same page of music,” Jerbic said. The council vote came one day after the Henderson City Council unanimously passed a similar measure in response to the same Supreme Court case, said Kathleen Richardson, senior public information officer for Henderson. The North Las Vegas City Council will vote on a similar bill tonight at its regular council meeting.

Nevada consistently ranks high, and at times highest, in its domestic violence rate compared to other states, according to annual reports from the Violence Policy Center. The latest data from the Nevada Department of Public Safety reports that more than 30,000 people were arrested for domestic violence in 2017; over 21,800 of those arrests were conducted by Metro.

At Wednesday’s meeting, individuals on both sides of the issue insisted that they want to protect victims of domestic violence as best as possible. How to best accomplish that was at the heart of the discussion.

SafeNest and the local chapter of Moms Demand Action, a national gun violence prevention group, stressed that guns put domestic violence victims at greater risk. In the United States, a woman’s risk of being killed by an intimate partner increases five-fold when a gun is in the home, according to a 2003 study on femicide in the American Journal of Public Health.

“This fix or workaround will further harm victims of domestic violence,” said Claire Hooper, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action. “I urge you to reject this bill and instead to step back and work with county and state officials to find a better solution.”

Nonetheless, city officials argued that the new measure would protect victims as best as possible for the time being.

“Unfortunately today, we’re forced to do something,” Fiore said. “If this bill doesn’t pass, there will be no domestic violence convictions in the city of Las Vegas.”

Timely trials are crucial in domestic violence cases, Jerbic added, because victims are more likely to recant accusations the longer it takes for a case to go to trial. Passing the new charge now, rather than letting domestic violence cases build up, is therefore the best way to help victims, he said.

Jerbic will meet with SafeNest next week to discuss additional steps forward, said the organization’s CEO Liz Ortenburger. She is hopeful that a permanent solution will be reached soon.

“There are solutions in other states that are actually keeping victims safe and holding perpetrators accountable,” Ortenburger said. “That’s what we need to work toward.”