Frequently Asked Questions and General Information
As a criminal defense attorney, many of my clients end up doing community service as part of plea negotiation in a criminal case. Court-ordered community service is valuable to criminal defendants because it can often be used to avoid jail time and fines. This article explains what community service is, addresses some common misconceptions, and in general, is written to help my clients (or anyone else who is interested) get their court-ordered community service done so that they can get their cases closed and move on with their lives.
What is community service?
Generally, community service is work you do without pay, for a legitimate non-profit organization, which benefits the community in some way. Under this definition, here are a few things which are not going to count toward a court-ordered community service, which you should obviously avoid:
- Volunteering for a friend's for-profit business. Sometimes defendants ordered to complete community service will volunteer their time to help out at a business, usually for a friend. Unless your friend owns a federally tax-exempt non-profit organization (read more about these below), you will be out of luck. Simply put, not getting paid is not enough.
- Watching videos for an online website that claims to give credit for community service. A few years ago, many people were attempting to turn in community service "timesheets" from a company that claimed to be a non-profit organization capable of satisfying court-ordered community service requirements. They collected fees from individuals and then allowed them to watch online movies. Supposedly this would count toward community service requirements. However, courts would not accept this as valid "community service" and universally regarded it as a scam. So why isn't this legitimate community service? Because watching videos online doesn't benefit the community in any way.
Will I have to pick up trash on the side of the road?
No. This is a common misconception about community service. Many people's only concept of community service is seeing people in orange jumpsuits pick up trash on the side of the freeway. That is a form of community service (picking up trash does benefit the community) but it's far from the only one. I don't believe I have ever had a client who actually picked up trash on the side of the road for community service. I have had many clients, however, who end up doing volunteer work at churches, community centers, and other organizations that benefit children, the elderly, the homeless, or animals. To understand the full range of activities available, read on.
What kind of organizations can I do community service for?
You can do community service for a tax-exempt nonprofit organization organized under Internal Revenue Code 26 U.S.C. § 501(c). Sometimes these organizations are just referred to by the IRS code number "501(c)." Tax-exempt nonprofits tend to fall into a few categories:
- charitable organizations;
- religious organizations (such as your local church);
- educational organizations;
- scientific organizations;
- literary organizations;
- organizations involved in testing for public safety;
- amateur sports organizations (such as the United States Olympic Committee);
- public safety organizations;
- organizations to prevent cruelty to children or animals (such as Save the Children or the Animal Foundation).
Where can I do my community service?
In general, you can do community service with any non-profit organization. However, increasingly, courts in Las Vegas (especially Las Vegas Justice Court) are requiring defendants to complete community service through one particular organization: HELP of Southern Nevada. HELP is an organization that offers many services, but for our purposes here, I'm referring to HELP's Community Alternative Sentencing Program, which arranges for people to complete court-ordered community service. Essentially, when a court in Las Vegas (or elsewhere in Southern Nevada) orders a criminal defendant to complete community service, HELP will hook that person up with a valid nonprofit organization, based on the person's location, interests, and capabilities.
Here are some things you should know about completing community service through HELP:
- There is a fee to sign up. For Justice Court in Clark County, Nevada, the fee is currently $30. For District Court, the fee is $40. HELP provides a more complete fee schedule on its website. It is possible to have the court waive this fee based on financial hardship, but that must be done ahead of time, so ask the judge to waive the fee and note it on your HELP referral form (read below about the referral form).
- HELP will not allow you to do community service unless you have a referral form given to you by the court. If you have lost your form, you will have to get another one. Your criminal defense lawyer should be able to get you a new referral form.
- You have to make sure you complete your hours at least five business days before court. HELP
- You need to bring a picture identification card.
What if I live out-of-state and I can't use HELP of Southern Nevada?
If you live in another state, the court will allow you to do community service elsewhere, since HELP operates in Nevada. Just remember to get approval from the court first. If you are not going through HELP, you will have to find your own nonprofit organization. Looking for ideas? First, your local church is always an option. For non-religious options, you might try Habitat for Humanity or the American Red Cross or many others. Here is a list of 100 national nonprofit organizations. You might also search locally for smaller organizations where you live.
Here are some general tips if you are doing community service on your own instead of going through HELP:
- Keep track of your hours. The organization may have a timesheet for you to use, but if they don't, a simple spreadsheet will be fine. Be sure to include individual all essential information, such as the date the work was done, the number of hours worked per date, and a space for your supervisor to sign or initial. You typically won't turn in your timesheet; the timesheet is just so you can keep track of your hours (and have proof if your supervisor doesn't remember you or disappears). Once you have completed your hours, you should get a letter from your supervisor. See below.
- Get a letter on from your supervisor. This should be on company letterhead with contact information for your supervisor, and state the total amount of hours worked. The court will verify your hours with this person.
- Make sure you're working with someone in the organization who is authorized to allow you to do community service. Sometimes a defendant will do community service with a valid nonprofit but their contact person is someone who is not authorized to sign off on community service hours. What will happen if the court calls to verify hours and the person actually in charge of community service doesn't know you? At best, you'll be doing your community service all over again. At worst, the court could hold you in contempt, and possibly throw you in jail for 25 days.
Can I convert a court-ordered fine into community service?
Generally yes. In many instances, courts in Las Vegas, including Las Vegas Justice Court, will allow you to do community service "in lieu of a fine" (i.e., instead of a fine). But you should know a few things about doing community service in lieu of a fine:
- You need approval first. Before doing a fine in lieu of community service, you should make sure the judge approves it so you get credit for your work.
- The exchange rate is $10 per hour of community service. So if you are ordered to pay a $500 fine, that's 50 hours of community service. However, you typically won't be able to get rid of the whole fine with community service. Read below.
- You will generally still need to pay "court costs." Court costs are administrative fees that cannot be converted to community service. Although these court costs will depend on your charges, generally speaking, they are around $100 to $150. So for example, let's say your fine is $500 and court costs are $100. You can do 40 hours of community service but you will have to pay the last $100 to the court.
Can I convert my community service into a fine?
No, not usually. It doesn't work that way. If the court orders you to complete community service, then you can't "buy your way out of it." But don't get confused: the court may have ordered you to pay a fine or complete community service. If this is the case, then you haven't actually been ordered to complete community service. Instead, you've been given the option of either paying a fine or completing the equivalent number of community service hours.
Here's an example. Some criminal charges require community service. Battery domestic violence is one such charge. If you are convicted of battery constituting domestic violence in Las Vegas Justice Court, you will be ordered to complete at least 48 hours of community service. You will also be ordered to pay a fine. The minimum fine for Justice Court, including mandatory administrative fees, is $345. So you have to complete at least 48 hours of community service. You can complete more community service hours in lieu of the $345 fine (although $137 of that is "court costs" that cannot be converted to community service).
The bottom line is, when the court specifically orders you to complete community service (and doesn't simply give you the option of doing either/or), then you have to do community service.
So why do I write, in response to this question, "not usually"? Because it will sometimes be possible to convert community service into a fine even when it's ordered by the court, but only if the judge and prosecutor agree (and such an arrangement is not prohibited by law). This is rare, though. The vast majority of the time, the court doesn't want someone to be able to buy their way out of doing community service.
Hopefully after reading this, you understand a little better how court-ordered community service works. Keep in mind, this article is geared toward court-ordered community service in Las Vegas courts, and most especially in Las Vegas Justice Court. It applies equally well to other Clark County Justice Courts, such as Henderson or North Las Vegas. But keep in mind, there are different procedures for different courts, even within the several departments for Las Vegas Justice Court. So if you have any specific questions, or you're unclear about any of the information I've written about, you should ask your defense attorney.