The right to a jury trial is one of the most important rights provided to criminal defendants in the United States. A jury trial can differ vastly from a bench trial, in which a judge presides over the case and determines guilt or innocence. The right's roots come from English common law. But the U.S. Constitution: Article III, section 2, clause 3, and the Sixth Amendment guaranteed it.
This article discusses the right to a jury trial in criminal law. First, it summarizes the constitutional right to a jury trial in a criminal trial. Second, it details what a jury is and how courts select jurors. Third, it describes what the right to a jury trial guarantees. Finally, it discusses the right's limitations.
Constitutional Protection for Jury Trials
Article III, section 2, clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution states, "The Trial of all crimes ... shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed ...".
The Sixth Amendment, part of the Constitution's Bill of Rights, says:
"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 ... ."
Originally, the Bill of Rights only provided jury trials for defendants in federal courts. The 14th Amendment's Due Process Clause passed in 1866, extended the right to state criminal cases. So, anyone facing criminal charges has a right to a jury trial in open court, regardless of whether their case is in a state or federal court.
Understanding what the right to a jury trial guarantees and when it applies is essential.
What Is a Jury?
A jury acts as the trier of fact in a jury trial. Typically, a jury consists of 12 jurors. Their job in a criminal case is to analyze the parties' arguments and evidence and determine guilt or innocence. Their conclusion is a jury verdict.
Serving as a juror is a civic duty for U.S. citizens. Adults are eligible for jury duty if they meet the following criteria:
- They are a United States citizen
- They are at least 18 years old
- They live in the county in which they are called for jury duty
- They can communicate in English
- They have the physical and mental capacity to serve as a juror
If the court calls you to jury duty, you will eventually proceed to jury selection. Jury selection is also known as voir dire.
During jury selection, the judge and the attorneys will ask the potential jurors questions to determine whether they can serve as a juror in a particular case. These questions may reveal biases that could affect the case's outcome. The attorneys may each strike potential jurors if they believe the juror cannot render a fair and impartial verdict.
During the criminal trial, the jurors will hear arguments and evidence from the parties. Their role is that of fact-finding. They must determine whether the prosecution proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
The trial judge may call for a mistrial if the jury cannot come to a unanimous verdict. If the jury does, in fact, unanimously find the defendant guilty or not guilty, the jury has done its job.
Jury trials are only available at the trial court or district court level of the judicial system. The trial court, in some states, is the circuit court. Trial courts in different states have different names. Appellate courts do not have juries. Instead, a panel of judges decides appeals. Appellate courts don't hold a retrial of the case; instead, they review the trial court rulings and transcript to determine if there was a legal error during the trial.
The Right to a Jury Trial
The law entitles all defendants in criminal cases to jury trials according to the federal standard for "serious penalties." A jury trial isn't mandated if the offense carries a sentence of six months or less. The state can decide whether to provide a jury trial in that situation.
Many state constitutions grant jury trials to criminal defendants facing charges of lesser crimes. But, several examples exist where a state doesn't provide for a jury trial. For instance, in the 1970s, the New York Legislature decided that those facing less than six months in jail would have their cases decided by a single judge.
While the move by the legislature helped advance the agenda of judicial efficiency in New York, the law had some negative results. Specifically, immigrants were not allowed jury trials for charges like prostitution. If convicted, these immigrants sometimes faced deportation.
But this changed in 2018. New York's highest court determined that the law entitles noncitizens to jury trials for deportable offenses under the Sixth Amendment guarantee to a jury trial. Immigrants now have the right to a jury trial even if they face less than six months in jail if convicted.
Limitations to the Right to a Jury Trial
The Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial isn't absolute and has restrictions. For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that juveniles don't have this right.
While the Sixth Amendment states that the accused has a right to a jury trial in "all criminal prosecutions," the Supreme Court has interpreted that the right to a trial by jury only applies to serious offenses. It doesn't apply to petty crimes.
The distinction between a petty offense and a serious one depends on the following:
- The maximum punishment available for the offense
- The nature of the offense
A serious offense is an offense that has a possible sentence of more than six months in jail. A defendant has no right to a jury trial if the government prosecutes them for multiple petty offenses in one proceeding.
Discuss Your Right to a Jury Trial With an Attorney
The right to a jury trial is significant for anyone accused of a crime. To learn more about how the right to a jury trial can affect you and any charges you face, talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can give you valuable legal advice about the following:
- Specific legal defenses for your criminal charges
- Whether a waiver of your right to a jury trial would benefit your defense
- Whether your criminal charges, such as DUI, entitle you to a jury trial
Don't delay contacting a criminal defense attorney near you if you face criminal charges.