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Can You Choose Not to Have a Jury Trial?

Americans have the right to a jury trial when accused of serious offenses under the Sixth Amendment, but can you choose to waive those rights?

A jury of your peers can be between six and a dozen persons with no guarantee of legal background, while a trial by judge places your fate in the hands of one legally accomplished individual.

So when do you get the choice not to have a jury trial, and why would you choose to forgo one?

Guaranteed Jury Trial for 'Serious' Offenses

Your right to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution applies to "serious" and not petty offenses. For many misdemeanors and infractions, defendants may not have an option to have their cases heard by a jury, so a judge is often the only option.

Most courts have settled that a jury trial must be an option for any offense for which the penalty involves six months of imprisonment or more. However, each state may allow defendants additional rights to a jury trial which is not secured by the U.S. Constitution. For example, California grants anyone charged with a felony or misdemeanor the right to trial by jury. You're unlikely in any state to have the right to a jury trial for any traffic ticket, however.

When Can You Waive This Right?

The right to a jury trial is one that belongs to the defendant, so it is typically the defendant's choice for a judge or jury to decide his or her fate. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, former Philadelphia politician and lawyer Robert J. Kerns recently chose a judge, not a jury, to determine if he was guilty of having nonconsensual sex with an employee of his law firm.

Waiving this right to jury trial requires a judge to determine that:

  • Both the defendant and his or her attorney consent to waiving the right,
  • The defendant knows what he or she is giving up, and
  • The waiver is voluntary.

Why Would You Choose a Judge Over a Jury?

Many defendants choose a bench trial (a trial with a judge and no jury) because they believe their case rests on legal technicalities which a jury is likely to misconstrue or gloss over. A judge may also be more likely to pay attention to all the evidence in the case, and there is no chance that he or she will consider evidence or testimony which was barred or inadmissible.

Choosing between a judge and a jury is not a decision to be taken lightly, so consult with a criminal defense attorney first.

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