In the State of California, criminal offenses are separated into two main categories – felonies and misdemeanors. Felonies are more serious offenses that carry a penalty of a year or more in prison if convicted whereas misdemeanors are less serious offenses for which you cannot be sentenced to more than a year in prison. As a defendant in a misdemeanor prosecution, you have a right to have a jury trial on a misdemeanor in California, however, you may need to assert that right early in the case.
The right to a trial by jury is a constitutional right in the United States found in the Sixth Amendment, or Amendment VI of the United States Constitution, in the section of the Bill of Rights that states, in pertinent part:
“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…”
As a fundamental right in the United States, the right to a trial by jury is one that is zealously guarded and protected. When a defendant is charged with a felony offense a jury trial is typically presumed by the court. In other words, the court will assume that the defendant plans to resolve the case by a jury trial and will proceed accordingly. If the defendant ultimately decides not to proceed to a jury trial the right to a jury trial must be formally waived by the defendant.
In a misdemeanor case the court will typically advise the defendant of the right to a trial by jury during the defendant’s arraignment, or initial appearance; however, the court will not assume that a jury trial is going to take place. In a misdemeanor prosecution the defendant may have to proactively advise the court of the intention to proceed to trial by jury.
Individual courts may have specific procedural rules for requesting a misdemeanor jury trial. Sometimes, if a defendant fails to ask for a jury trial on a misdemeanor charge within a specified period of time the court assumes that the right to trial by jury has been waived. This is one of the many reasons why you need to seek the advice and guidance of an experienced California criminal defense attorney early on if you are charged with a criminal offense.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to allowing a trial by jury to decide your fate. Only an experienced criminal defense attorney can evaluate the facts and circumstances in your case and provide you with meaningful advice about taking your case to a jury trial.