In this discussion, I will answer the question “When do you get a jury trial?” as well as explain the types of trials available in Los Angeles criminal cases, and some attorney strategies. The type of trial generally depends on the level of severity of the criminal charges. Jury trials in Los Angeles involve the selection of 12 impartial jurors, who are essentially asked to make their best efforts to determine whether an accused person has violated the law.
In order for a jury to convict you of a Los Angeles criminal case, all 12 jurors must find that you are guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the highest standard of required proof. If 11 jurors believe you are guilty, and one juror is unsure of your guilt, you will not be convicted of the charge. (The prosecutor may choose to “re-try” the case in this circumstance. This would be done with a new jury panel.)
Under certain circumstances, the prosecutor and defense attorney (with the agreement of the defendant) may agree to have a case decided by a judge in a Court Trial, waiving the right to a trial by jury. This is a calculated choice to be considered by a defendant/attorney when the subject matter of the case is extremely sensitive, politically charged, and/or potentially difficult for a jury to give an unbiased verdict (child victim cases sometimes fall in this category). The decision to waive jury should be carefully made by all parties involved.
Generally speaking, the right to a jury trial in Los Angeles depends on the severity of violations of which you are facing:
1. Is your case an infraction, misdemeanor, or felony?
Criminal cases in Los Angeles are filed at three different levels of severity. The least serious criminal charge is an infraction, which include most traffic violations, as well as many local municipal codes. Infraction charges cannot be punished with jail or other form of incarceration, although they often carry collateral consequences, such as negative action from the DMV in the form of suspensions or revocations. Typically, infraction convictions may be punished by a fine, only. In a few specific infraction conviction cases, such as Vehicle Code section 23111 (Throwing a Substance on the Highway) can also be punished by mandatory community service.
Those charged with infraction criminal charges are generally not entitled to a Trial by Jury (many years ago, jury trials were an option for infractions). Infraction cases are tried directly by a judge or court commissioner (Court or Bench Trial), eliminate many strategies and defense approaches, and are usually decided promptly. Because infraction cases do not run the risk of incarceration, there is no right to appointed defense counsel. You can, however, hire an attorney to represent you in an infraction proceeding.
One interesting issue related to infraction criminal cases relates to wobbler misdemeanor/infraction cases. A prosecution strategy on marginal cases is sometimes to file “weak” cases as infractions, rather than misdemeanors. This type of filing is done pursuant to Penal Code sections 19.8/17. Some criminal charges which can be filed at this level include, Trespass, Minor in Possession of Alcohol, Possession of Fake ID, Disturbing the Peace, and Exhibition of Speed.
An infraction filing can eliminate the necessity of expending extensive time, as well as limited court and prosecution resources with a jury trial. Judges are less apt to decide a case based on “nullification” or emotions, as a jury might do. Unfortunately, infraction filings may remove many potential defense strategies.
However, according to Los Angeles and California law, when a prosecutor files a wobbler as an infraction, a defendant must “consent” to the reduction; in reality, many courts “haphazardly” dispense with this requirement.
In some infraction cases, it may make sense to require the prosecution to proceed at misdemeanor level, to provide defense strategy options, and require the prosecutor to either move forward with a jury trial, or dismiss the case. Many prosecutors are reluctant to spend two or three days on a jury trial which is unlikely to end “favorably.” The strategy and decision to demand an infraction case proceed as a misdemeanor should be carefully weighed with assistance of an attorney, since the downsides include a risk of probation, potential custody time, program completion, community service, and much higher fines and fees. Other collateral consequences which may exist with the misdemeanor pathway include, additional negative immigration consequences, as well as potential negative employment and state licensing consequences.
2. Misdemeanor Criminal Charges
Those accused of misdemeanor criminal cases in Los Angeles are typically entitled to a jury trial. Misdemeanor charges are the mid-level of criminal cases, and may be punished by probation, possible custody in city or county jail, community service, programs, fines, and court fees. Misdemeanor cases include, DUI (1st Time), Shoplifting, Battery, and Hit and Run. Los Angeles misdemeanor convictions cannot result in a state prison sentence.
3. Felony Criminal Charges
Los Angeles felony cases are the most serious criminal violations, and those accused are entitled to a jury trial. Depending on the violation and circumstances, if you are convicted of a felony, you may be facing substantial incarceration, probation or parole, fines, fees, and other significant terms. Felony cases may include, Drug Transportation, Assault with a Deadly Weapon, Injury Hit and Run, and Burglary.
In any criminal case, regardless of the violation level, it is important to obtain personal legal representation at every stage of the case, including, pre-filing/pre-court, arraignment, pre-trial, trial, and after conviction. You should seek immediate representation if you are accused of a crime in Los Angeles, CA, to carefully evaluate your options throughout the case, from start to finish.
Copyright © 2016-7 Law Offices of George Kita. All Rights Reserved