The right to a jury trial is one of the most important rights that a criminal defendant has in the United States. Because a jury trial can differ vastly from a trial where a judge presides over the case, having the option for a jury trial can be a real advantage for a defendant. This fundamental right is guaranteed by two separate provisions of the U.S. Constitution: Article III, section 2, and the Sixth Amendment.
Constitutional Protection for Jury Trials
Specifically, Article III, section 2 states, "The trial for all crimes shall be by jury and such trial shall be held in the state where the said crimes have been committed." The Sixth Amendment, which is part of the Bill of Rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, provides the following: "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."
After understanding the origins of jury trial rights, it's important to understand what the right to a jury trial actually guarantees and when it applies.
Limitations to the Right to a Jury Trial
The right to a jury trial isn't absolute and it has its restrictions. For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that juveniles aren't afforded this right as juvenile cases are civil proceedings.
While the Sixth Amendment states that the accused has a right to a jury trial in "all criminal proceedings", the Supreme Court has interpreted that the trial by jury right only applies to serious offenses, not petty offenses. The distinction between a "petty" offense and a "serious" one depends on the maximum punishment available for the offense or by the nature of the offense.
A serious offense is an offense that has a possible sentence of more than 6 months of incarceration. However, a defendant doesn't get the benefit of the right to a jury trial by being prosecuted for multiple petty offenses in one proceeding.
State Criminal Cases and Jury Trial Rights
Although the Bill of Rights only provides for a jury trial for defendants in federal courts, the right to a jury trial is so important and fundamental that it couldn't remain solely applicable in the federal courts. That's why this Sixth Amendment right was extended to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
All defendants in state criminal cases are entitled to jury trials according to the federal standard for "serious penalties" used by the Supreme Court. However, if the offense carries a sentence of 6 months or less, then a jury trial isn't mandated and the state can decide whether to provide a jury trial.
Many states take this option and their state constitutions grant jury trials to criminal defendants facing charges of lesser crimes. However, there are several examples when the state doesn't provide for a jury trial. For instance, in the 1970s, the New York Legislature decided that individuals facing less than 6 months in jail would have their cases decided by a single judge.
While the move by the legislature helped to advance the agenda of judicial efficiency in New York, the law resulted in a negative impact for members of the immigrant population who were denied jury trials for charges like prostitution, which could lead to deportation, if convicted.
However, this changed in 2018, when New York's highest court held that noncitizens are entitled to jury trials for deportable offenses under the Sixth Amendment guarantee for a right to a jury trial.
Discuss Your Right to a Jury Trial With an Attorney
The right to a jury trial is a significant right for anyone accused of a crime, as well as to the community as a whole which plays an important role in the criminal justice system. To learn more about how the right to a jury trial can affect you and any charges you may be facing, talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney.