One aspect of criminal trials that very few people realize is the ability to have a bench trial instead of a jury trial. Bench trials can be more beneficial in certain situations, such as white collar crimes where juries often find guilt even when the facts may be light. Before asking for a bench trial, you should understand what you are getting into. In colonial times, before even a jury was available, Bench Trials were the only form of justice against British Citizens being found guilty of crimes under a bill of attainder.
Bench Trials Explained and Differences with a Jury Trial
The main difference between a bench trial and a jury trial is that the judge becomes both the finder of fact and makes conclusions concerning the applicable law as well. In a jury trial, the jurors are the finder of fact, and the judge only makes legal determinations. The pre-trial stages of jury questioning and selection do not exist, and the judge makes rulings on all objections while only utilizing facts that are deemed acceptable. For example, the judge can make determinations on Miranda Rule based testimony on the fly rather than having an evidence hearing outside the presence of the jury.
Pros of a Bench Trial
The pros of a bench trial are that the costs are much lower than a jury trial, as attorneys must put up money to seat the jurors. Also, the time period is shorter as the lengthy jury selection process is eliminated. Since the attorneys, clients and witnesses no longer have to impress the jury in their presentation, bench trials tend to focus strictly on the facts of the case and not necessarily the “show” of presenting them.
Cons of a Bench Trial
The con of a bench trial is that you are leaving the decision of your fate in the hands of one judge instead of 12 jurors. When there are 12 jurors, doubt in your favor can result in mistrials and no convictions. However, a judge is never left in doubt and will come down with a decision one way or the other. Also, if your attorney is out of challenges to a judge (being able to challenge a judge based on legal reasons), you may be stuck with an unfavorable judge deciding your fate.
Crimes that are Eligible for Bench Trials
Typically, civil trials are usually bench trials, unless the attorneys request a jury be seated. In the criminal sector, eligibility for bench trials is based on
1) the defendant waives a jury trial right in writing,
2) the prosecution approves the request, and
3) the court gives its ok.
In California, minor infractions like littering or traffic tickets are bench trial matters, and in the federal court any crime that has a sentence maximum under six months are bench trials as well.
Do you Need a Lawyer?
Deciding between a bench or jury trial is a very important step in the legal process. An experienced lawyer can guide you thru the process and help guide you to the right choice under the circumstances you are facing. Without a lawyer, you can find yourself waiving vital rights or defense options before a criminal trial.