The Right to Trial by Jury

The right to a jury trial is qualified—many crimes aren’t sufficiently serious for it to attach.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Criminal defendants are entitled to trial by jury—under most circumstances. (For information on juvenile cases, see Do juveniles have a right to trial by jury?)

The right to trial by jury in a criminal case resides in both Article III, Section 2 of the federal Constitution ("The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury") and the Sixth Amendment ("In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury"). But the right isn't as broad as those texts might suggest, meaning that many defendants have to settle for judge trials, where the court decides whether the defendant is guilty.

Serious Offenses Only

According to the Supreme Court, the jury-trial right applies only when "serious" offenses are at hand—petty offenses don't invoke it. For purposes of this right, a serious offense is one that carries a potential sentence of more than six months' imprisonment. (Baldwin v. New York, 399 U.S. 66 (1970).) If the penalty is six months or less, the crime is serious only if the sum of its penalties are weighty enough. The Supreme Court decided in one case that up to six months' incarceration or five years' probation, plus a $5,000 maximum fine weren't enough to make a certain kind of DUI a serious offense. (U.S. v. Nachtigal, 507 U.S. 1 (1993).) Likewise, in another case, it decided that a first-time DUI was merely a petty offense where:

  • the maximum imprisonment was six months
  • there was an alternative penalty of 48 hours' community service while wearing DUI-offender identification
  • there was a maximum fine of $1,000
  • defendants had to undergo alcohol-abuse education, and
  • defendants automatically lost their licenses for 90 days.

(Blanton v. City of N. Las Vegas, 489 U.S. 538 (1989).)

Adding Up Offenses

Prosecutors regularly file more than one charge against defendants. The natural question is what happens when there are multiple charges that individually carry six months or less but exceed six months when added together. Unfortunately for defendants, the Supreme Court has held that the jury-trial right doesn't apply in this circumstance. In one case before the Court, the defendant had been charged with two counts of obstructing the mail, each count providing a maximum of six months in jail. The Court found that the defendant had no jury-trial right. (Lewis v. U.S., 518 U.S. 322 (1996).)

State-Law Protection

The Supreme Court's determination of what constitutes a serious offense and thereby entitles one to a jury trial sets a minimum standard. In other words, states must provide jury trials if an offense is serious under the Court's standard. But they are free to guarantee jury trials to defendants when the crimes aren't sufficiently serious under the federal standard. (Benitez v. Dunevant, 198 Ariz. 90 (2000).)

Talk to a Lawyer

It's possible that the decision as to whether to go to trial will rest largely on whether a judge or a jury will be the fact finder. To learn about the applicable law in your jurisdiction, consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Such a lawyer can also inform you of any other relevant considerations.

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