Vegas Lost: The court with teen attorneys
LAS VEGAS (KSNV) —
The charge is possession of a controlled substance; in this case marijuana, less than an ounce on school grounds.
The Judge is William Sullivan, the suspect is a minor. None of this is alarming, we’re told the number of teens caught with pot is on the rise. It’s just another day in court until you see the attorneys.
“My client was found with 2.4 grams of marijuana. Who here has seen a penny? This is 2.5 grams.”
The voice commanding the jury, the hand that holds the penny, belongs to a 16-year-old named Mateo Portelli.
The prosecution hasn’t graduated high school either. The lack of formal education doesn’t stop the objections. Portelli would ask the judge to throw out his client's criminal history as it might be prejudicial to the jury.
“Your honor if I may object, I want to make sure they aren’t misleading the jury", he asked. The Judge agreed.
This is “Trial by Peers.”
Defendants have all been charged with misdemeanors. The attorneys and the jurors are Clark County students, some as young as twelve years old.
They work with real attorneys, real clients, real evidence and real charges. When you sit in court, you realize these kids take it really seriously.
Portelli told us about one case. He was representing the State of Nevada, it was an obstruction charge. A cop arrested a teenager. Mateo dug in and saw an ethical problem.
The defendant wasn’t obstructing the police’s investigation; he was a kid who didn’t speak English.
“We didn’t know in the police report that the officer spoke to someone who didn’t speak English. We dismissed it because it was a false citation.”
The charges were dropped. Judge William Sullivan was impressed.
“These kids take it seriously.” He told us.
Sullivan has been heading up this program for twenty-five years. Students who get accepted take a nine-week course on law before they start practicing under the supervision of licensed attorneys.
All the cases are referred to them instead of going to a Family Court. They estimate the cost savings to the county at about $600 a case, about $200,000 per year.
The reason we’re here is that their case load is exploding. In 2016 they handled some 150 cases, last year that number skyrocketed TO 454.
“We're not here to punish the kids", Sullivan told us. “We teach them accountability being good citizens, we want to modify behavior. Their more receptive here. Not in front of a judge and attorney they got their own kids telling them what’s going on. “
Defendants get sentenced here to community service, time on jury duty, and to alcohol and drug classes when relevant. It’s like what they would likely have gotten in court.
The punishment is temporary, they hope the lessons will last.