Sentencing hearings are usually the last stage in a criminal case if you have been convicted. Your lawyer argues for the laxest penalties and the D.A. argues for the harshest. At the end, the judge will then decide on the final custody sentence, fines and any other terms.
Keep reading to learn all you need to know about Nevada sentencing hearings.
What is a sentencing hearing in Las Vegas, NV?
Think of it this way. In a criminal trial there are two sides: Your side which claims you are innocent, and the prosecutors’ side which claims you are guilty. And let us say that at the end of this trial the jury returns a guilty verdict …
So a sentencing is similar to a trial in that the judge listens to the same two sides argue: Your attorney and the prosecutors. But the issue here is not your guilt since that has already been decided. The only thing at stake at a sentencing hearing is what penalties you will be sentenced to.
Note that you do not need to plead guilty at trial to have a sentencing hearing. You also get a sentencing hearing after you plead guilty or “no contest” to a crime as part of a plea bargain.
How soon do sentencing hearings occur after I am convicted?
It depends. Nevada law states that, “Sentence must be imposed without unreasonable delay.” (NRS 176.015)
If the crime was a misdemeanor, sentencing typically occurs right away. This is because the maximum punishments for misdemeanors are relatively lax: Six months in jail and/or $1,000 in fines. But the judge may delay sentencing for a few days.
If the crime was a felony, the sentencing hearing may not occur for three or more weeks. This is to give your attorney ample time to prepare for the hearing because the potential penalties are much more serious. Felonies carry a minimum of one year in prison.
Sentencing could also be delayed if your attorney is moving for a new trial, if the court needs to determine whether you are sane, or if the probation department is late in turning in your pre-sentence investigation (PSI). A PSI is a biographical report about you to help the judge determine a proper sentence.
How long do sentencing hearings last?
Again, it depends on your case. Some Nevada sentencing hearing especially for minor crimes may last a few minutes. But for more serious crimes it is not uncommon for sentencing hearings to span several hours.
What happens at the hearing?
Las Vegas sentencing hearings look very similar to trials. Both your attorney and the D.A. may call witnesses to testify and give closing arguments. You also have many of the same rights as you do at trial such as:
- The right to be present at your sentencing.
- The right to have an attorney represent you.
- The right to present evidence.
- The right to propose alternative sentencing. (An example would be requesting rehab instead of prison.)
Note that you do not have the right to confront or cross-examine witnesses. For example if John is convicted of battery and the victim Jane testifies at sentencing, John would not be able to cross-examine Jane on the stand.
Another way sentencing hearings are different than trials is that evidentiary rules are much looser. In trial no evidence is admissible unless it is relevant to the case. At sentencing nearly all evidence is admissible …
In sentencing hearings, your attorney will introduce “mitigating factors.” Mitigating factors can be anything that makes you appear less blameworthy. And hopefully they will cause the judge to impose a laxer judgment. Common examples of mitigating factors include:
- that you were abused and neglected as a child
- that you are a model citizen who has helped the community
- that you were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time and not in your right mind
- that you suffer from a mental illness
Conversely, the D.A. may try to introduce “aggravating factors.” Aggravating factors are evidence that make the crime seem more egregious. And they could cause the judge or jury to impose a harsher judgment. Common examples of aggravating factors are:
- in violent crimes, that the injury was severe
- in property crimes, that the property damage was substantial
- that you used a weapon in the commission of the crime
- in some cases the D.A. may bring up whether you have a long criminal record
What will my sentence be?
It is a common misconception that each crime carries a definite penalty, but that is not exactly true. Instead, each crime carries a wide range of mandatory prison time or fines.
As you can see, the range spans from relatively lax to extremely harsh. Where your sentence falls within this range is what the sentencing hearing will determine.
What will my sentence be if I was convicted of more than one crime?
When you are being sentenced for more than one crime, the judge will decide whether the sentences will run “concurrently” or “consecutively.” For example, Jim is convicted on two counts of robbery and gets three years for each count …
If the sentences run concurrently (at the same time), he will serve only three years. But if the sentences run consecutively (back-to-back), he will serve six years.
At the sentencing hearing your attorney can argue for you to receive a concurrent rather than a consecutive sentence.
What if I have been convicted of crimes in the past?
Whether your past criminal record can increase your sentence for a future conviction depends on several factors. Consult with your attorney, and refer to our information page about habitual offenders in Nevada.
If I am found guilty at trial, will my sentence be harsher than if I took a plea deal?
In general, yes. Judges prefer defendants to plea bargain instead of going to trial in order to conserve court resources. Therefore prosecutors will usually offer lower sentences to defendants as an incentive to avoid trial.
If I enter a plea bargain, does the judge have to grant it?
Judges usually will honor the terms of a plea bargain. But they do not have to. There is always a slight risk when you enter a plea that the judge will impose a harsher penalty. But again, this is rare. Learn more about plea resolutions.
If my sentencing hearing is scheduled for another day, can I remain out on bail?
Following a guilty verdict or entry of plea, the judge has the discretion to order any of the following:
- that an out-of-custody defendant go into custody (this usually happens in very serious cases),
- that an in-custody defendant remain in custody (this also happens in very serious cases), or
- that the defendant post bail or remain on O.R. release pending their appearance at the sentencing hearing
In an effort to keep you out of custody, your attorney may argue that you are not a flight risk and that the nature of the crime does not warrant custody.
Can my family and friends testify at my sentencing hearing in Las Vegas, NV?
Consult with your attorney about whether it would be a good idea. It is very common for family and loved ones to testify at sentencing hearings to lobby for a lax penalty. But sometimes they can do more harm than good depending on what they say. Maybe they can write a letter to the judge instead.
Charged with a crime? Call us for help …
If you have been arrested for a crime, call our Las Vegas criminal defense lawyers to talk. We may be able to get your charge dismissed or win at trial so you never face sentencing at all.
In California? Go to our informational webpage on California sentencing hearings.