Legalese — Right to a Jury Trial

Historic Walton County Courthouse, Monroe, Ga. Photo Credit: Darrell Everidge, PMR

One of the basic, fundamental rights that we have in America is the right to a jury trial.  This right is extended to anyone who faces a criminal trial in our courts, whether they be a citizen or not.  This right is delineated in Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution, which states that “The trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury.”  In case that wasn’t clear enough, it is restated in the Bill of Rights.  The Sixth Amendment says, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed….”

It’s so important, the Constitution stated it twice.

So then, why don’t all trials have juries?  Juries are cumbersome and time consuming.  It takes the better part of a day to select a jury.  If each trial for each criminal indictment were to be tried by a jury, the backlogs would be years long, and the Sixth Amendment “right to a speedy and public trial” would be impossible.  Some people – many people – don’t actually want a jury trial.  Cases can be resolved a lot more quickly and efficiently when just the judge decides.

And, despite the rights so clearly written in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, not all criminal trials are entitled to be heard by juries.  In Baldwin v. State, 399 U.S. 66 (1970), the defendant was charged with ‘jostling,’ which is actually a kind of pickpocketing.  He asked for and was denied a jury trial.  The long standing holding by the United States Supreme Court has been that “petty offenses” did not have to be tried by a jury.  The Baldwin court, then, set about the task of defining what a “petty offense” was.  They concluded that “[N]o offense can be deemed ‘petty’ for purposes of the right to trial by jury where imprisonment for more than six months is authorized.”  This six-month line in the sand has been upheld again and again in other cases in the Supreme Court.

This makes the rule simple: if you are facing jail time of up to six months, you are not entitled to a jury trial.  If you are facing jail time of six months and one day (or more), you are.  This is true whether or not you actually get more than six months’ worth of jail time as your punishment or whether it is merely theoretically possible at the outset.  In analyzing whether a jury was required, the Supreme Court “assume[s] that a defendant convicted of the offense in question would receive the maximum authorized prison sentence.”  That is why, for example, in the State of Georgia you are entitled to have a jury trial for most traffic offenses.  Traffic offenses are considered misdemeanors, and most of them carry with them a maximum punishment of 12 months incarceration.  It is unlikely that you would be incarcerated for that length of time, but it is theoretically possible, and that is what triggers your Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.

I think it is interesting to note that another one of your Sixth Amendment rights, your right to have an attorney represent you, is triggered if your liberty is placed in jeopardy at all.   The United States Supreme Court has stated that if you are at risk of being incarcerated for any length of time then you have the right to have “the guiding hand of counsel.”  Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25 (1970).  Just some food for thought there.  Ponder why the Supreme Court has distinguished those two rights found in the same sentence in the Constitution.

This is being offered for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.  No lawyer can inform you about your case without hearing the details of your particularized situation.

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