The Constitution gives every person accused of a crime that might result in jail the right to trial by jury. That doesn't mean that every case is or should be tried to a jury. As the accused, you also have the option to waive, or give up your right to a jury and have your case heard by a single judge instead. If your charge can't send you to jail, you have no right to a jury trial, and your case will be heard by a judge. The charges that can't be heard by a jury include simple traffic offenses and minor misdemeanor criminal charges such as disorderly conduct or a pot ticket. If you get a citation that says no court appearance is required or allows you to pay a fine wthout going to court, the charge is a minor misdemeanor and no jury trial is available.
What's a Bench Trial?
A bench trial makes the judge the person who decides what witnesses to believe. He determines what the facts are, then applies the law to those facts to decide whether the state has proved you guilty.
Why Choose One?
There are many reasons for choosing a judge over a jury if you have that choice. Some are good reasons, but some are not. If your attorney is more interested in getting rid of your case quickly than the result, he will always choose a bench trial because they are much quicker. This is a bad reason to waive a jury. Sometimes, a lawyer who is familiar with the judge will know how he has ruled in the past on certain issues. Some judges tend to always believe police officers. Some don't trust eyewitness identifications.
A judge whose beliefs tend to favor your case may be a better bet than an unknown group of jurors. If the issue in your case is a technical legal issue, a judge is more likely to understand the argument and follow the law. If you are making an emotional factual argument, like self-defense, you will probably do better with a jury. If the judge has already made some preliminary rulings on motions in your case, those rulings might tell your attorney what he thinks about the case.
Considerations When Choosing Between a Bench or Jury Trial
Possibility of Losing
In choosing between bench and jury trials, you must also consider the possibility that you will lose. Although judges are not supposed to penalize you for insisting on your right to a jury trial, in fact sentences tend to be longer when a jury convicts you. Some judges will consider the 'waste' of time and money required by a jury trial when passing sentence. A lawyer with local knowledge should be able to advise you about the possibility of a penalty for jury trial.
Cost of a Jury Trial
A jury trial will also carry financial costs if you lose. Courts are required to order you to pay court costs if you lose. Those costs are far higher after a jury trial than a bench trial. Attorney fees are often higher as well.
If you are in a hurry to resolve your case for some reason, you will also need to consider the time required to schedule a jury trial. Since these trials take more time, and require the court to summon jurors, they can't be scheduled quite as quickly or easily as a bench trial.
Possible Appeals Down the Road
If you have to appeal a conviction, however, the appellate court is more likely to reverse a jury verdict for issues like prosecutor misconduct, or improper admission of evidence. Generally, the appellate court assumes that a judge will only consider relevant evidence, and is less likely to be influenced by mistakes or bias.
If Your Attorney Suggests a Bench Trial
If your attorney suggests waiving your right to jury, ask for his reasons. Be sure that he has some valid reason other than his own convenience.
Jurors are people like you. They may share your views about the evidence and credibility of witnesses. They are probably less likely to simply assume that the police are always right. They don't know the prosecutor personally, and don't work with him everyday.
In a jury trial, the prosecutor has to convince more than one person. Jury verdicts must be unanimous. That means everyone on your jury has to vote guilty before you can be convicted. One vote in your favor will prevent a conviction. This is a definite advantage. Before you give it up, make sure that you have a good reason.