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Should You Waive Your Right to a Jury Trial?

Posted by Sam Israels | May 20, 2024

A common question is whether waiving your right to a criminal jury trial is a good idea. The most direct answer is that it's possible.

Sometimes, defendants in a criminal case might consider waiving their right to a jury trial in favor of a bench trial, in which a judge with a reputation for leniency decides guilt or innocence.

Should You Waive Your Right to a Jury Trial?
Sometimes, defendants may want to waive their right to a jury trial and have a bench trial.

There are various reasons why a defendant might consider waiving their right to a jury trial. For instance, they might aim to resolve the case swiftly or keep it out of the local news. Alternatively, they might have a lengthy criminal record and wish to minimize public exposure.

Suppose it's in their best interest to waive any trial in favor of a negotiated plea bargain with the district attorney, in which they plead guilty or no contest in exchange for a lighter sentence.

If a defendant decides that waiving their right to a jury trial is in their best interest, their case will proceed directly to the sentencing phase of the court process.

It's important to note that this decision can only be made voluntarily and intelligently after the judge has explained the differences between a jury trial and a bench trial.

For example, defendants and their lawyers participate in jury selection in jury trials, and all 12 jurors must unanimously agree on a verdict. There is no jury selection in bench trials, and the judge decides the case after hearing all the evidence. Also, it should be noted that some crimes, such as misdemeanors with sentences of less than six months, do not qualify for a jury trial.

The Constitution and Jury Trial Rights

Suppose you were charged with a crime. In that case, you have a constitutional right to be tried by a jury of your peers through:

  • Article III, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution.
  • The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  • Article I, Section 16 of the State Constitution of California.

Article III, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution says, “The trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury. Such trial shall be held in the state where the said crimes were committed; but when not committed within any state, the trial shall be at such place as the Congress may by law have directed.”

The Sixth Amendment 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, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Article I, Section 16 of the State Constitution of California says, “A trial by jury is an inviolate right and shall be secured to all. A jury may be waived in a criminal cause by the consent of both parties expressed in open court by the defendant and the defendant's counsel."

In criminal actions involving felony charges, the jury shall consist of 12 persons. In criminal actions involving misdemeanor charges, the jury shall consist of 12 persons or a lesser number agreed on by the parties in open court.

What is the Difference Between a Jury and a Bench Trial? 

Notably, a jury trial and a bench trial are two different types of legal proceedings that can potentially significantly impact a case's outcome. Consider the following:

  • A jury is a group of 12 peers responsible for evaluating the evidence and determining the facts of the case. The judge presides over the process, makes rulings on legal matters, and guides the jury on the applicable law. The prosecutor and defense lawyer must agree on juror selections.
  • The jury must be unanimous in their verdict, whether guilty or not guilty.
  • If the jury can't reach a unanimous verdict, it will be considered a "hung jury," and a mistrial must be declared.
  • A bench trial has no jury; the judge assumes a dual role, serving as both the arbiter of law and the determiner of facts.
  • In a bench trial, the judge alone makes legal rulings, assesses the evidence, and decides the verdict.
  • The decision between a jury trial and a bench trial requires strategic consideration, considering the case details, complexity, and the possible influence of public opinion.

When Should You Waive Your Jury Trial Right?

As noted, there are situations where it's in your best interest to waive your right to a jury trial, whether in favor of a bench trial where a judge decides your verdict or as part of a plea deal with the prosecutor.

There are no rules or guidelines for deciding whether to waive your right to a jury trial; instead, this decision must be made between you and your criminal defense lawyer based on the case details.

Sometimes, your lawyer will advise one way or the other. Some of the reasons you may want to waive your right to a jury trial for a bench trial, where the judge alone decides the case, include the following:

  • The judge has a reputation for leniency.
  • Your case made local or national news.
  • It's a particularly violent crime.
  • Your physical appearance would not be favorable for a jury.
  • You want to resolve the case as quickly as possible.
  • You want a less expensive resolution, meaning a bench trial costs much less than a jury trial.
  • You want to plead guilty or no contest the criminal charges as part of a plea agreement with the prosecutor, meaning the case will not need a trial but instead go directly to a sentencing hearing. 

What Are the Advantages of Waiving a Jury Trial?

Sometimes, it might be advantageous for defendants to waive their right to a jury trial for several reasons, such as the following:  

  • In high-profile cases, choosing a bench trial can circumvent the possible influence of public opinion on a jury. Judges must decide cases based on the evidence and the law, regardless of public sentiment. This can apply to criminal cases involving egregious or violent crimes where jurors may struggle to be impartial.
  • Bench trials conclude more quickly by eliminating the process of jury selection and deliberation.
  • Bench trials' shorter duration often results in reduced court costs and attorney fees, making them a more cost-effective choice than jury trials.
  • Judges' decisions are typically more predictable than those of a jury, where emotions and personal biases can sway their decisions.
  • If you're assigned a judge with a record of showing leniency for mitigating circumstances, your lawyer may recommend waiving the jury trial.
  • Bench trials are typically more private than jury trials and could be beneficial if a defendant wants to keep details of the case out of the public eye.
  • Sometimes, a defendant's physical appearance, such as gang tattoos, might make them appear guilty to a jury, causing jurors to conclude guilt.  

What Are the Disadvantages?

Waiving your right to a jury trial might not work in your best interests for the following reasons:

  • If you waive a jury trial, you are giving up the chance to have your case heard and decided by a panel of your peers.
  • Sometimes, juries can empathize with a case's human aspects, while judges are known for a more impersonal approach.
  • In a bench trial, all decisions are made by one person, who alone interprets the law, evaluates the evidence, and determines the verdict.
  • While judges seek to remain impartial, they can have unconscious biases.
  • Jury members often reflect community values and norms, while a judge might not fully understand these perspectives, which could be disadvantageous in cases where societal context is essential. 

Determining whether to seek a jury trial is often highly subjective and differs from case to case, but it should never be given up lightly. 

First, consult a California criminal defense attorney who can help you weigh the pros and cons and determine whether doing so improves your chances of a better outcome. Contact our law firm for more information. Cron, Israels & Stark has offices in Los Angeles, CA. 

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About the Author

Sam Israels

Sam J. Israels is a Law Firm partner with the Law Offices of Cron, Israels, & Stark. Mr. Israels received his J.D. degree from the Santa Clara University School of Law. Mr. Israels also previously worked at the Los Angeles Office of the City Attorney. He is admitted to practice law in the State o...

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