Drugs: Judge or Jury Trial

by Jamison Koehler on October 11, 2009

Sometimes, after the pre-trial motions have been litigated and any plea bargaining negotiations have been concluded, a defendant needs to have his or her day in court.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial for “all” criminal offenses. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted this requirement to apply only to “serious” criminal offenses. “Serious” criminal offense is one carrying a maximum statutory penalty of greater than six months of incarceration.

This means that misdemeanor charges in the District of Columbia will be tried in front of a judge. (A trial in which the judge both presides over the trial and makes the finding as to the defendant’s guilt is often referred to as a “bench” trial.) It means that a defendant facing felony criminal charges in D.C. will need to decide between a judge trial and a jury trial.

Only the defendant can make this decision. There are certain decisions affecting a trial that are made by defense counsel and other decisions that are to be made by the defendant. Defense counsel, for example, will have final say on which trial strategies to use. Decisions involving constitutional rights, such as in this case, will always be made by the defendant, presumably in consultation with his or her lawyer.

What’s the right decision?

Drug cases in D.C. are usually based almost entirely on police officer testimony. Police officers are typically the ones who observe the illegal activity. Police officers make the arrest and test the seized substances. And they are much easier for the prosecution to bring to court.

While the decision will depend on the specific facts of the case, taking all sorts of factors into consideration, I find that, for the defendant, cases revolving around the credibility of police officer testimony are often better tried in front of a jury. Doesn’t it make sense that members of a jury might be more skeptical of a police officer’s testimony than a judge? At the same time, cases involving complicated legal issues that might be beyond the understanding of many jurors might be better tried in front of a judge. Again, these are just generalizations. The defendant should consult closely with his or her lawyer in making this very important decision.

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