Arizona has just joined a small but growing list of states that have taken away the right to jury trial in DUI cases. A few weeks ago I posted "DUI and the Disappearing Right to Jury Trial" on the disturbing trend in government of denying one of our most basic constitutional rights: the right to be tried by a jury of our peers. The federal government and a handful of states have eliminated jury trials for drunk driving cases or for misdemeanors altogether. Without admitting it, they are apparently doing this primarily to save money and to "expedite" the criminal justice system (read: eliminate impediments to conviction).
But , you ask, the Sixth Amendment to our Constitution clearly 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…" How do you get around that? Addressing an appeal from a Nevada DUI case a few years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in its wisdom that it didn't really mean we had a right to a jury trial for ALL crimes — only for really big ones. What's a really big one? Well, basically any offense for which you can go to jail for more than six months. In other words, if the law says that the maximum punishment is six months imprisonment or less, you can't have a jury trial: your guilt or innocence will be decided by an elected or politically-appointed judge.
But, you object, the language of the Sixth Amendment is clear: "In ALL criminal prosecutions…" Well, we are told, it doesn't really mean that. The state of Arizona is the most recent to address this issue….and their Supreme Court has just rendered a decision (Derendal v. Hon. Griffith, No. CV-04-0037-PR). Before the ruling was published, The Arizona Republic had reviewed the case:
When the Derendal case reached the Arizona Supreme Court, the justices asked for briefs describing why the state should or shouldn't adopt the federal guidelines set out in a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case called Blanton vs. City of North Las Vegas, which was about the right to a jury trial for DUI. The Blanton decision set the definition of petty offenses as those whose punishment is six months or less of incarceration…. According to the Research and Statistic Administrative Office of the Courts, which crunches numbers on behalf of the Arizona Supreme Court, there were more than 65,600 trials for misdemeanor offenses at the state's Justice and Municipal courts in fiscal 2004, which ended June 30. Only 1,273 of those were jury trials and three-fourths of them were criminal traffic cases, which includes DUI, according to the brief Flint submitted to the high court in the Derendal case. He noted how much time and money could be saved by eliminating misdemeanor jury trials. He cited 1995 figures claiming that Phoenix Municipal Court had spent nearly $1.3 million on jury trials, mostly for DUIs…. [emphasis added]
Two days ago, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled unanimously that "if the legislature has defined an offense as a misdemeanor punishable by no more than six months incarceration, we presume that the offense is petty, and no jury right attaches." In a modified version of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, the only exception is "if a statutory offense has a common law antecedent that guaranteed a right to trial by jury at the time of Arizona statehood", then the right to jury trial would continue to be recognized. To no one's great surprise, the decision primarily eliminates the right to a jury trial in DUI cases, as the offense has no "common law antecedent" (there were no cars when Arizona became a state) and is punishable by "only" six months imprisonment. Saving the City of Phoenix alone nearly $1.3 million. (There have apparently been no studies yet on exactly how much could be saved by eliminating trials entirely.)