A couple of days ago, I posted some comments ("Through a Glass Darkly") in which I concluded by asking, among other things, "Remember when…there was a Constitutional right to jury trial in DUI cases?" Since then, I've received emails asking me what I was talking about: There are jury trials in DUI cases.
Yes, there are jury trials in DUI cases…in some states…for some DUI cases…for now.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece ("DUI and the the Disappearing Right to Jury Trial") in which I pointed out that in New Jersey, Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona and a growing number of states that right is being taken away.
Let's just take another look at that endangered document again, specifically the Sixth Amendment:
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…
Let me repeat that: "In ALL criminal prosecutions…". Not in "some". Not in "most". All.
So how can they deny the right to jury trial in a DUI case? As is so often the case, by playing games with words.
It started some years ago when the Supreme Court (the same court that later found an "exception" to the Fourth Amendment for DUI roadblocks) decided that the framers of the Constitution didn't really mean "in ALL criminal prosecutions". So they changed one little word. They said what the framers really meant was that there was a right to jury trial in serious criminal prosecutions — not in petty ones. Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968).
Well, what about DUI cases? In most states, they involve potential sentences of six months in jail — and fines, license supensions, DUI schools, ignition interlock devices, 3-5 years of probation. And the possibility of even stiffer punishment for a repeat offense. Doesn't that show that lawmakers think drunk driving is pretty serious?
Well, a Nevada citizen accused of DUI and (inevitably) convicted by a judge took the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court. With all the additional punishment over and above the six months in jail, his attorney argued, wasn't it "serious" enough to have a right to a jury?
No, the Court held: "Considering the additional statutory penalties as well, we do not believe that the Nevada Legislature has clearly indicated that DUI is a 'serious' offense." Blanton v City of North Las Vegas 489 U.S. 538 (1989).
From Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass:
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."