Regardless of whether you have been charged with a misdemeanor or felony in California, you have the right to due process. That means you cannot be deprived of life or liberty without going through the criminal justice system. To safeguard this protection, an impartial trier of fact may hear the evidence against you to determine whether you are guilty of the alleged offense. You have the right to have your case presented before and decided by a jury of your peers. Conversely, you may waive this right and opt for a bench trial, where a judge alone hears arguments and renders a verdict.
At Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP, we stand up for our clients, facilitating a fair justice process. Schedule a consultation with one of our Los Angeles lawyers by calling us at (800) 462-7160 or contacting us online today.
When the Right to a Jury Trial Applies
A trial by jury is an important right guaranteed to persons accused of crimes. It gives defendants a chance to have their cases decided by impartial peers.
The right to a jury trial applies when you are accused of a misdemeanor or felony. These crimes come with heavy punishments that include incarceration. A misdemeanor may be punishable by a county jail term of not more than 1 year. In contrast, a felony carries time in state prison of 1 year or more.
You are not afforded the right to a jury trial if you have been charged with an infraction. These are offenses you likely received a ticket for. Also, they are generally punishable a fine and no jail time.
The Jury Trial Process
Several steps are involved in preparing a case for a jury trial.
The first part of the process is impaneling a jury. During this phase, the prosecutor and defense interview potential jurors to ensure that they make up an impartial 12-member panel. In some cases, either side may ask the court to dismiss certain jurors if the individual does not meet the selection criteria.
Once a panel has been chosen, the judge will provide instructions to the jurors. The instructions serve as rules for how the jurors should weigh the evidence when making their decision. They will also include details on what elements the prosecutor needs to prove before the defendant can be found guilty of the alleged crime. Following this, the prosecutor and defense will make opening statements to summarize the evidence and arguments they will present.
After the prosecutor and defense have presented their cases and given closing arguments, the jury will be called on to render a verdict. The jurors will go into deliberations to discuss the evidence they have heard. They may also ask the judge for clarifying information or a re-examination of certain pieces of evidence.
The jurors must make a unanimous decision. Any unresolvable disagreement may result in a hung jury.
This can lead to a:
- Mistrial (another trial may be held with a different jury),
- Plea bargain (an agreement with the prosecutor to reduce or dismiss charges), or a
- Case dismissal.
Waiving a Jury Trial
You can choose to waive your right to a jury trial and opt for a bench trial instead. A bench trial is where a judge alone hears the evidence and decides whether you are guilty.
With a bench trial, the rules of evidence and procedure are generally the same as those in a jury trial. The major difference is that the verdict is not decided by a panel of your peers.
Various advantages exist to opting for a bench trial, such as:
- Efficiency: Your case does not have to go through the jury selection process, and the judge does not have to explain the law to jurors. Additionally, there is no need to account for multiple jurors’ opinions and the potential for error.
- A more neutral trier of fact: Judges typically have more experience than jurors when it comes to evaluating legal issues. They know and understand the law in a way random peers might not.
- Greater predictability: A judge might have particular positions on specific legal issues, as apparent in prior rulings. Because of this, attorneys may anticipate how a judge would lean in a specific case.
Of course, waiving the right to a jury trial has some drawbacks. For instance, judges might make hasty decisions without considering the case from different viewpoints.
Whether waiving your right to a jury trial is beneficial will depend on your case. It is crucial that you speak with a criminal defense attorney before deciding how to proceed.
Reach Out to an Attorney Today
Although you have the right to a jury trial, you could choose to have only a judge hear your case. Before moving forward, it’s a good idea to consult with a lawyer. They can fully discuss each choice in terms of your unique situation.To speak with a member of our Los Angeles team, please contact Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP at (800) 462-7160.