The Fading Right to Jury Trial

Posted by Lawrence Taylor on February 10th, 2008

Ok, the cop said I looked bad on the field sobriety tests, but I know I’m not guilty: I only had two drinks and I’ve got witnesses. No matter what the police say, I can tell my side of the story to my fellow citizens and let them decide. Right?

Well…Not necessarily. This right to jury trial, handed down centuries ago from England’s Magna Carta, was considered so fundamental to the framers of our Constitution that they included it in the Bill of Rights’ Sixth Amendment? It makes no exceptions to this sacred right to trial by a jury of peers.

So why do some states today deny a person accused of drunk driving a jury trial? Why, for example, does an American citizen arrested in New Jersey have to accept the decision of a politically-appointed judge? After all, the Sixth Amendment is pretty clear on the subject:

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 did the government get around this fundamental right? Well, once again they started whitling away by playing around with words. (As Humpty Dumpty said Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”)

It started some years ago when the federal courts 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).

So what is “serious”? Well, a couple of years later, the Supreme Court decided that there was no right to a jury trial if the maximum authorized prison sentence did not exceed six months. Amazingly, going to jail for one-half year was not enough to justify giving a citizen a right to trial by his peers. The Court added, however, that a defendant could have a right to jury trial “only if he can demonstrate that any additional statutory penalties, viewed in conjunction with the maximum authorized period of incarceration, are so severe that they clearly reflect a legislative determination that the offense in question is a “serious” one”. Baldwin v. New York 399 U.S. 66 (1970).

Well, what about DUI cases? They usually involve maximum sentences of six months in jail — AND a bunch of other stuff: 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?

Inevitably, a citizen accused of DUI and (inevitably) convicted by a judge in Nevada 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).

Hmmm…..Drunk driving seems “serious” enough to justify ever-harsher DUI laws because of the oft-mentioned “carnage on the highways” — but apparently not “serious” enough to give a citizen his constitutional right to a jury trial.

We’ve come a long way since those historical words “In all criminal prosecutions…”

  • standup

    You know Mr. Taylor, everytime I visit your site, I get more and more pissed off. No sir, not at you, but at the “System”.

    The states that have no right to a jury trial for DUI, was MADD behind that too ?

    I really feel that you should hook up with Jeanne Pruett from R.I.D.L. and maybe Stephen Beck ( Author of the book, “Big Brother’s New Prohibition ) and take those MADD clowns to the cleaners in a PUBLIC debate. They need to be exposed !!

  • standup

    Come to think of it, MADD is always harping about drinking and driving being a “Violent Crime”. Are’nt violent crimes serious ?

  • llDayo

    I agree with you, standup! Every time I read another post on this site I’m tempted to go to the next MADD meeting with a baseball bat. The DUI laws in this country are becoming ridiculous and the judges are ruling contrary to the Constitution! People need to start waking up and voting these idiots out!

  • jim

    at this point i am so fed up with the court system in nj… i dont even want a jury trial, just a municipal count bench trial and i cant ev en get that.

    i have made 13 court appearances over 30 months time for a simple low level dui first offense, and i can’t even get a hearing on the matter, let alone a trial.

    to take it further, the nj supreme court ordered all alcotest dui cases to proceed to trial in jan of 2006…

    the entire situation that i keep being ordered into court by the judge, and am not allowed to have a hearing or trial because the State wont initiate a trial, it is beyond belief, but true.

  • Keeyter

    The whole basis of this article, as posted, is that because the judicial system doesn’t classify the DUI as a serious offense and therefor afford the right to jury trial, not that MADD is pleading to increase the terminology and definition of a DUI Offense.

    And I can understand the 13 appearances, I do feel for you. As I have been exposed to, most of this is the fault of your Attorney. Yeah thats right, First they are nominally on a pay by hour basis, enough said. Secondly 99% of the participate in hallway trials. That is where every attorney and their illegitimate child approach the States Attorney and use the good ole boy club card to help out buddies. Thirdly the meaningless shadow tactics and useless motion that they render to cast a shadow.

    A wise man once said, it’s not mans obligation to cast shadow of a doubt, that’s what the sun is for.

    Back to the point at hand. You find me 12 jury members for every DUI, which in my state was 114,000 +/- a few, pay the jury members, add the cost of the trial, and watch the taxes, court filing fees, fines and other tax payer expenses sky rocket. All to the end of the Attorney and defendant entering a plea to a Misdemeanor with Community Service. The court system can’t take serious, what the Attorneys treat as Child Play.

  • jim

    keeyter, i disagree with you.

    100 percent of the burden to proceed to trial is on the State.

    There is no way as a matter of law the law division of the appealate court can mention the good ole boys network you talk about, in a opinion. they must go by the law.

    I have made 13 court appearances with attorney over a 30 month time, …each time ready for trial to meet my fate, win or lose.

    there can be no legal justification, after the nj supreme court ordered the cases to proceed to trial in jan of 2006, for the State to not have initiated a trial in any one of my 13 court appearances.

    i am entitlted to due process, not the taking away of 30 months of my life for the lowest level first offense dui.

  • rholtzjr

    I am awaiting rebuttal for the “Double Jeopardy” response that I have proposed. I REALLY want to know WHY the US Supreme Court has NOT deemed this a violation of “Double Jeopardy” law. Their interpretation of this meaning is flawed. Rehnquist should be be impeached for his interpretation of this law.

  • standup

    Hey Screwed BTS, that link should get you there. If not, keep trying,it’s a worthwhile site my friend !!

  • jim

    there is also the fading right to having a trial at all in new jersey.

    30 months and 13 court appearances i havce made and i cant get a trial, even with the nj supreme court ordering the case to proceed to trial over 2 years ago.

    talk about my rights completely taken away, jesus

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