This radical, week-long arts and community festival takes place from the end of August through the beginning of September in northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Therefore most criminal cases arising out of Burning Man are heard in Reno Justice Court and the Bruce Thompson Federal Courthouse.
In this article, our Nevada Burning Man attorneys discuss the most common offenses that festival-goers get arrested for and how we can help. Scroll down for more information on the crimes’ legal definitions, possible penalties, and potential defenses, or click on a crime below to go directly to that topic.
Also see our article about Electric Daisy Carnival arrests.
Many drunk driving arrests occur on HWY 447, the road leading to and from Burning Man. It is against Nevada law for drivers to either:
- drive with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08% or higher, even if they are not impaired, or
- drive while impaired by alcohol, even if their BAC is lower than 0.08%
Similarly, it is also illegal to drive while high or with statutorily prescribed quantities of certain drugs in the blood. (See our article on “drugged driving” laws.)
Highway patrolmen who suspect burners of driving drunk or high can pull them over and investigate by having them perform field sobriety tests, such as standing on one foot. Drivers who are then arrested for DUI have to submit a breath or blood test.
A first-time DUI in Nevada with no major injuries is just a misdemeanor. Defendants can usually avoid jail as long as they comply with the following terms:
- A fine of up to $1,000,
- DUI School (online class),
- Victim Impact Panel attendance,
- No further arrests while the case is pending, and
- 3-month driver’s license suspension by the Nevada DMV
A second-time DUI is also a misdemeanor but carries a mandatory ten (10) days in jail. Third-time DUIs, as well as any DUIs causing substantial injury or death, are automatic felonies with time in Nevada State Prison.
Burner lawyers can explore several possible defenses to Nevada DUI charges depending on the circumstances of the case. Just a few of them include:
- The breath- or blood-testing equipment was faulty,
- The police incorrectly administered the field sobriety tests, or
- The burner did not begin drinking until after the police officer pulled him/her over
In some cases, DUI charges can be dismissed or reduced to reckless driving. Learn more about driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Drug use is reportedly rampant at Burning Man. Depending on the situation, burners may find themselves charged with one or more of the following narcotics offenses:
- possession for personal use (the least serious crime)
- possession with the intent to sell
- selling drugs (this often occurs after a police officer witnesses a hand-to-hand sale)
- trafficking drugs (the most serious crime, which comprises possessing, making, or selling large quantities of drugs)
Frequently, burners who have drugs only for personal use get mistakenly arrested for more serious drug crimes such as selling drugs.
Example: A group of ten friends goes to Burning Man, and they divvy up packing. John agrees to be in charge of bringing marijuana to share with everybody. At Burning Man, an undercover police officer notices that John has a gallon bag in his trailer full of marijuana. Assuming that the only reason anyone would have that much pot is to sell it, the officer then arrests John for possessing marijuana for the purpose of sale even though John genuinely had zero intention of selling the pot.
If John’s defense attorney in the above example could convince the prosecutor that John was not a drug dealer and was only a recreational user, his charge could be reduced to straight possession.
Penalties for Nevada drug crimes depend on the following factors:
- the type of drug involved,
- the amount of drugs involved, and
- whether the defendant sold or intended to sell the drugs
On the lax side of the spectrum, smoking pot in public is a misdemeanor in Nevada carrying a $600 fine and no jail. But on the other side of the spectrum, trafficking 28 grams or more of heroin can carry life in prison and half a million dollars in fines.
The best defenses to Nevada drug charges turn on the unique circumstances of the case. Two of the most common defense strategies include:
- The police performed an illegal search to find the drugs. If the officer performed a warrantless search — or if the officer did not have a lawful reason to forgo getting a warrant — then the defense attorney can ask the judge to disregard (“suppress”) any evidence found from the illegal search. This could leave the prosecution’s case too weak to sustain a conviction; or
- The burner had no idea the drugs were there. Perhaps someone planted the drugs in the burner’s luggage. Or perhaps the drugs belonged to the burner’s trailer-mate. If the defendant honestly had no knowledge of the drugs being there, he/she committed no crime.
In some cases, defendants arrested only for simple possession and have no other criminal record may be able to have their charges dismissed as long as they pay a fine and complete a drug class. Learn more about drug crimes.
Rape, also called “sexual assault,” is having sexual relations with someone else when either:
- the defendant knows (or should know) that the other person did not give consent, or
- the defendant knows (or should know) that the other person is unable to give consent, such as by being asleep or drunk
Note that sexual assault involves physical penetration: vaginal, anal, oral, or digital. Sexual touching without penetration is instead open or gross lewdness.
At Burning Man, rape allegations typically arise out of situations where both people are drunk or high.
Example: Mark meets Molly at one of the Burning Man stations. They go back to his trailer to smoke pot. They start kissing, and Mark genuinely believes that Molly wants to have sex. Molly just wants to kiss but is too stoned to object or resist Mark. The next day a horrified Molly calls 911, and a stunned Mark gets arrested for sexual assault.
In the above example, Mark does not deny that they had sexual intercourse. So whether he ultimately gets convicted turns on whether a prosecutor can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mark knew, or should have known, that Molly did not give valid consent.
After murder, sexual assault is the most harshly punished crime in Nevada law. The punishment is life in prison. Parole may be possible depending on whether the victim sustained substantial bodily harm and on the age of the victim.
Typical defense strategies to Nevada rape allegations include:
- There was no penetration,
- The “victim” consented to the sex, or
- The “victim” is falsely accusing the defendant out of regret, revenge, or an honest mistake
The specific circumstances of the case dictate which defense would serve the defendant best. Learn more about sexual assault.
Battery is defined as the unlawful touching of another person. The most common examples include punching and hitting but can include everything from poisoning to spitting on.
Instances of battery are common in Burning Man, where burners live in very tight quarters in a disorienting atmosphere. As with any fair, adrenaline runs high and tempers may flare. Burners often feel less bound by societal rules to avoid conflict.
Battery can be a misdemeanor carrying only a fine or a felony mandating several years in prison. The sentence is harsher if the victim sustained a serious injury or was part of a “protected” class such as police. The punishment also gets tougher if the defendant used a deadly weapon.
Possible arguments to fight battery allegations include:
- The touching was an innocent accident,
- The defendant acted in lawful “self-defense”, or
- The “victim” consented to be in the fight
Learn more about battery.
One of Burning Man’s core principles is “radical self-reliance.” Therefore burners are expected to bring all the food, water, shelter, clothing, and other necessities that they need.
However, many festival-goers — especially newbies — under pack. And several are not prepared for the challenging demands of living in a makeshift desert community. This propels some burners to commit various theft crimes such as:
- Larceny, the taking another person’s property;
- Robbery, the taking someone else’s belongings by force of threats; or
- Burglary, going into another’s dwelling (such as a burning man trailer) with the intent to commit a felony such as grand larceny
The sentence depends on the type of theft crime, the value of the stolen goods, and whether violence was used. Therefore the sentence can range from just fines to several years in prison depending on the case.
Typical theft defenses include:
- False allegations: Especially at night when the playa is crowded and very dark, it is easy to accuse the wrong person of stealing.
- Accident: It is not theft if the person did not realize the property did not belong to him/her. And in a dizzying settling like Burning Man, people may innocently take others’ items without realizing it.
Another possible defense is necessity. If someone is truly in an emergency situation such as needing water or medicine, it may be legal to take another’s property to address the emergency.
6) Other Burning Man crimes
Other arrests that occur at Burning Man may arise out of the following Nevada offenses:
- Public urination or defecation. It is illegal at Burning Man to go to the bathroom anywhere other than in a designated Porta-Potty or in one’s trailer. Public urination is typically a misdemeanor, and the person usually receives a citation instead of getting arrested. However, in recent years some people who relieved themselves in public have instead gotten arrested for indecent exposure, a possible felony carrying sex offender registration.
- Reckless endangerment. Many burners create large-scale art pieces that may include hazardous elements such as fire. But if it causes a substantial safety risk to others, criminal charges may follow.
- Gun crimes. Burning Man prohibits firearms. Depending on the case, burners who bring guns may face charges for brandishing, aiming a gun at a person, or other weapons offenses.
With regard to nudity, many people who have been to Burning Man report that people can walk around naked without fearing arrest. Even still, note that being in public with any private area exposed qualifies as the Nevada crime of indecent exposure or breach of peace. And there is no way to predict whether law enforcement will crack down on public nudity. For more information about police, arrests, and crimes at Burning Man, refer to the Burning Man Law Enforcement Survival Guide.
Arrested at Burning Man? Call an attorney…
Have you or a loved one been arrested at Burning Man? Our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys may be able to get your charges reduced or dismissed without a trial, and in many cases you would not have to appear in court at all. Contact us for a consultation.