How Do I Represent Myself in a Nevada Criminal Case?
In Nevada, you have the right to represent yourself at a criminal trial. But is it a good idea?
The short answer is that you are almost always better off hiring a lawyer to represent you or at least advise you. If you can’t afford a lawyer and the prosecutor is seeking to send you to jail, you may qualify for a Nevada public defender.
However, retaining a lawyer with the experience, time, knowledge, resources and passion to fight your case can mean the difference between a criminal record and a slap on the hand.
Our caring Las Vegas criminal defense lawyers fight to protect the rights of clients throughout the state of Nevada on everything from misdemeanor DUI to first-degree murder.
To help you make the right decision about whether to represent yourself in a Nevada criminal trial, we answer some common questions about the right of self-representation.
When Does it Make Sense to Represent Myself in Nevada?
It is usually fine to represent yourself in a low-level civil case, such as a dispute in small claims court or an amicable divorce when child custody and support are not at issue.
But the only time it really makes sense to represent yourself for a violation of Nevada law is when the charge is for an infraction (such as a minor traffic violation).
When the charge is for a felony, a gross misdemeanor or even a misdemeanor, however, you might want to think twice. Even a misdemeanor with no possible jail time can leave you with a criminal record.
And in certain cases – including DUI or domestic violence charges – a criminal record has serious collateral consequences. You could face everything from higher insurance costs to the loss of your gun rights and right to spousal support to being denied the job you want.
An experienced Nevada criminal attorney can help you understand and avoid the consequences of a Nevada criminal conviction that might not be apparent at first blush.
Can the Court Prevent Me From Representing Myself?
The right to represent yourself in a criminal proceeding is protected by the Constitution. You have the unqualified right to represent yourself as long as your waiver of the right to counsel is made voluntarily and knowingly.
This means that you cannot be denied the right to represent yourself solely because you lack legal skills and knowledge.1 The court may, however, appoint you a lawyer against your will if it appears that you do not understand your rights (for instance, because you are mentally ill).
Read Your Citation!
The first step to defending a Nevada criminal accusation is to make sure you understand the charges and the time periods for contesting them.
Failure to respond to a criminal citation within the proper time limits will usually result in a conviction.
You can appeal your conviction, but it is usually more costly than fighting it the right way in the first place.
Familiarize Yourself With the Rules of Court
Even though you are not an attorney, you are expected to follow the law and rules of court.
Your citation will contain the name and location of the court in which your case is being heard, along with the code section(s) you are accused of having violated.
Las Vegas and Clark County are in Nevada’s Eighth Judicial District. Reno and Washoe County are in the Second Judicial District. Each district contains various courts. These include municipal court (for low-level misdemeanors), Justice Court (for more serious misdemeanors), Nevada District Court (for felonies and appeals) and Nevada juvenile court (if you are under 18).
If you suffer from substance abuse issues and are charged with a non-violent crime, you may also qualify for a Nevada specialty court, such as Nevada Drug Court or Veterans’ Court.
If you are not willing to put in the time to do your homework, representing yourself is probably not a good idea. However, those willing to do the work can find many resources online.
If you were charged in Las Vegas or elsewhere in Clark County, the Clark County Courts Self-Help Center is a good place to begin your research.
You will also want to take a look at Nevada’s rules of court and the Nevada Supreme Court’s online library of legal forms by county.
Where Can I Research Nevada Crimes?
Your citation will contain the code section you are accused of violating, along with the name of the crime.
You can search for your crime using our helpful search function, or look at our Nevada Crimes A-Z and Nevada Crimes by NRS Section pages.
Make sure you understand each element of your charge. This is how you will know what evidence you need to present. Remember – although the prosecutor needs to prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, the best defense is often a good offense. This means you should be sure to understand everything the prosecutor needs to prove – known as the “elements of the crime.”
What if I Was Charged With a Federal Crime?
If you have been charged with a federal crime in Nevada, we highly recommend you do not represent yourself. At the very least, you should consult with a lawyer first.
Sentences are usually more severe in federal court and there is no parole within the federal system. If you are sent to prison, you will serve your full sentence in a federal penitentiary, less only credits (if any) for good behavior.
Our website contains information on many federal crimes commonly charged in Nevada.
You can also look up the federal code sections themselves at the website of the Legal Research Institute, a not-for-profit group run by Cornell University.
Provide the Court With Accurate, Legible Information
We cannot stress highly enough the importance of providing the court with accurate and legible (as well as timely) documents.
If the court can’t read your documents or understand what it is you want, it will be hard to win your case.
You should also think long and hard about the accuracy of your statements. While you are not obligated to incriminate yourself, lying to the court is a crime. This does not mean you cannot enter a plea of “not guilty” even if you did what the prosecutor says.
If you are confused about what you can and cannot tell the court, your best bet is to speak to an experienced Nevada defense lawyer.
Attend All Hearings and Arrive to Court Early
Missing even a single court date can cause you to lose. To avoid stress, give yourself plenty of time to arrive and plan on getting to court early.
Make sure you have all your files, along with any and all exculpatory evidence. This includes your witnesses. We advise confirming with them several times and making sure they know where they are going and when they need to be there as well as how to dress and behave in court.
It is also a good idea to have multiple copies of any and all documents so you can give them to the judge, the clerk, and the prosecutor and still have copies for yourself.
Prepare an Outline of Your Argument
No matter how many times you have practiced your speech, it is different from arguing it to a judge in court. The courtroom can be an intimidating place. There are likely to be other defendants and lawyers present as well as the judge, the court reporter and possibly members of the public. Having an outline of your major talking points can save you time and heartache.
It also helps to practice arguing to a friend or family member. Just remember – whatever you say to your friends can be used against you. This is one reason why using a lawyer is often a good idea. Communication between you and your lawyer is subject to attorney-client privilege. This means it is private and cannot be discovered by the prosecutor.
Communications you make to friends are not covered by any privilege. When practicing your arguments, therefore, stick to the arguments and evidence in your favor and do not make any admissions a prosecutor could use against you.
Accused of a Crime in Nevada? Call us for help…
Before representing yourself in Nevada, we invite you to contact us for a consultation. We offer experienced criminal representation at an affordable price and can often work out a flexible payment plan.
Facing criminal charges in Nevada can be scary. But you don’t have to fight them alone.
- See, for example, the recent Nevada Supreme Court holding in Harris v. Nevada (December 2016) Case No. 65377, in which the court overturned a conviction for rape and robbery after the trial court refused to let the accused defend himself on this basis.
- Miles v. State (December 23, 2021), 137 Nev. Advance Opinion 78 (“[A] trial court should not ignore a defendant’s lack of understanding about the charges and potential sentences that becomes evident during the canvass.”)