What Is The Difference Between A Bench Trial And A Jury Trial?
When you are accused of a crime you are always entitled to a trial. At trial an impartial third party fact finder will hear the evidence presented by both sides and determine if the prosecutor has met the burden of proof required by law. If the impartial third party fact finder finds that the prosecutor has met the requisite burden then you will be convicted of the crime. If the impartial third party fact finder does not find that the prosecutor has met their burden, then they will find you not guilty. In every case you are entitled to be an active participant in this process but cannot be compelled to testify against yourself. There are two different types of trials, the distinction between the two depends on, “Who is the impartial third party fact finder?” The impartial third party fact finder can be a judge or it can be a jury and in most cases you are the person whom gets to choose which one you want to decide your case. This page will talk a little about both and explain the limitations on your choice of whom decides your case.
The “Bench” Trial
A Bench Trial is a term used to describe a trial in which the impartial third party fact finder is a judge listening to the case. A judge’s primary function is to preside over cases and decide what punishment a person should receive if they are convicted of a crime. A judge can take on an additional role as a fact finder. When a defendant consents to a trial to a judge or a “bench trial” the judge will listen to the facts and can possibly answer two questions; 1) Did the prosecutor meet their burden of proof to convict the defendant? and 2) If the answer to question one is yes, what is the appropriate punishment for the defendant to receive?
Bench trials are very common for many reasons and choosing a bench trial can be a tactical decision by a defendant. Below are five common reasons that a bench trial takes place.
- If a case is in municipal court a bench trial is the only type of trial available because municipal courts do not have the ability to preside over a jury trial. You may still be entitled to a jury trial on appeal but not in the municipal court.
- The fact pattern being presented may involve a nuanced legal issue that a defendant believes will be better understood by a judge.
- A bench trial requires less time spent on behalf of an attorney (because they will not spend time picking a jury) so it may be more cost effective for a client.
- The fact pattern being presented may be embarrassing, racially charged, sexually explicit or overly offensive however a law may have not been technically broken and a defendant may be scared that because of the nature of the case a jury may succumb to the particular nastiness of the case and find them guilty when no law was broken.
- A bench trial is slightly more informal than a jury trial and takes less time in general.
There are advantages and disadvantages to having your case heard solely by a judge you should talk with your lawyer about your particular circumstances when deciding what to do. Here are a few things to consider.
- Ask if your lawyer has had a trial with the judge presiding over your case. In most cases an experienced criminal defense lawyer can give you some insight to help make your decision.
- Ask your lawyer if the judge has any particular tendencies when it comes to cases like yours. Judges are people just like everyone else, they may have a particular type of case that they are very hard on. For example, if your lawyer tells you. “This judge gives a lot of weight to when a person refuses an alcohol test after being pulled over for DUI,” and you have a DUI refusal case you may want to ask for a jury trial.
- Ask your lawyer if he has tried many cases to a jury in the jurisdiction you are in. If you lawyer has, he or she may be able to give you some insight as to how juries tend to act in cases like yours. If a jury pool is tends to have doubts about law enforcement or tends to question the state, you may want to opt for a jury trial instead of a bench trial.
- Ask your lawyer about the prosecutor and if they have had many cases with them. Every lawyer has different talents as well as deficiencies. Some lawyers have a harder time talking with juries than others. Just like in everyday life, some people are more well liked or more trusted than others. Juries pick up on things like that and it is best to have some experience with the prosecutor when deciding if it is best to go with a bench or jury trial.
You are always entitled to a full evidentiary bench trial anytime you are accused of a crime. You can always hire a lawyer to represent you at that trial and you can never be compelled to testify against yourself. Sometimes a bench trial may not be the best way to protect yourself, you can nearly always opt for a jury trial in lieu of a bench trial.
The Jury Trial
In nearly all cases you have the right to a jury trial if you choose to have one and preserve that right by filing the correct paperwork. In Kansas, you are entitled to a trial to a jury as a matter of course on any felony and any other criminal case that is punishable by more than 6 months in jail. You can request a jury trial at any time during the case unless you have waived your right to a jury trial. For any crime that is punishable by less than 6 months in jail (“a petty crime”) you must request a jury trial in writing. If you do not request a jury trial in writing you may not be allowed to have one. You must take an extra step to ensure that you have a jury trial in a petty crime case, See K.S.A. 22-3404;
“The trial of misdemeanor cases shall be to the court unless a jury trial is requested in writing by the defendant not later than seven days after first notice of trial assignment is given to the defendant or such defendant’s counsel. The time requirement provided in this subsection regarding when a jury trial shall be requested may be waived in the discretion of the court upon a finding that imposing such time requirement would cause undue hardship or prejudice to the defendant.”
This law was later clarified in State vs. Woolverton. In Woolverton, the court held that, “A misdemeanor domestic-battery offense—punishable by no more than 6 months in jail, a fine of up to $500, participation in and payment for a domestic-violence-offender assessment, and compliance with the assessment’s recommendations—is a petty offense for which there is no constitutional right to a jury trial.” State v. Woolverton, 52 Kan. App. 2d 700, 371 P.3d 941, 942 (2016). As long as you do what you are supposed to do then you can have a jury trial in nearly all cases. Just like a bench trial there are advantages and disadvantages to a jury trial. Here are a couple of reasons that a person may choose to have a jury trial.
- A defendant doesn’t want to put their fate in the hands of just one person. In a jury trial, you get to rely on the experiences and brains of several different people before you can be convicted. In a bench trial, it’s just the judge whom decides your case.
- A defendant may feel their case may be a close call as to whether they violated the law however, the case involved extenuating circumstances that a defendant may feel a jury may better understand and not find you guilty of a technical violation of the law.
- A defendant may feel that the judge that would hear the case may not give them a fair shake or may have some preconceived notions about the case. For example, the judge may know your criminal history because you have been in front of him or her before and you may not trust that the judge can put his knowledge of your past acts aside when ruling on your new case.
- You think that a jury or your peers may identify with you more than a judge would and that they may be more understanding to your situation.
Depending on your particular case there may be other reasons that you choose to exercise your right to a jury trial. Remember a jury trial is not always the way to go, there are possible downsides to having a jury hear your case. Below are a few examples of why you might not want a jury trial.
- Jury trials take more time and almost always cost more money. Most lawyers bill by the hour and your lawyer will need more time to research the possible jurors as well as pick the jury in court.
- If your case is overly complex or your defense is a nuanced legal argument a jury may not understand your defense like a judge may be able to.
- Juries are unpredictable. You are pulling off the experience and knowledge of people with no legal training. They may misunderstand instructions or confuse the burden of proof.
- The jury may have to overcome an inherent bias. Many people believe that just because you are sitting at the defense table that there has to be a reason you are there. They may disregard your presumption of innocence.
When you are deciding what to do with your case you need to consult with an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Especially when you are deciding whether you are going to have your case tried to a jury or a judge, an experienced criminal defense lawyer can give you insight as the what best suits your case given the facts and the legal arguments.
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