Bench Trial: Should You Choose a Judge or Jury?

When to Choose a Bench Trial

Did you know that you don’t have to be tried by a jury of your peers?

Of course, every American citizen is entitled to be tried by a jury, unless he or she has committed a minor offense. Even if you are charged with a more serious crime, it might be in your best interest to waive your right to a trial by jury. In that case, you would be tried in a bench trial.

What is a Bench Trial?

A bench trial is simply being tried by the court without a jury. A judge or panel of judges would act as fact finder and ruler on the case, and it would proceed otherwise as a normal case, with evidence, witnesses, and testimonies.

It’s also referred to as a non-jury trial. You would automatically be tried in a bench trial if your offense only carries a maximum penalty of six months jail time and a maximum fine of $5,000. Even if the potential restitution you were ordered to pay amounted to more than $5,000, your case would be tried as a bench trial. Juvenile proceedings are also exempt from the right to a trial by jury.

Why Would You Want a Bench Trial?

A trial by jury is what people commonly think of when they think of going to trial. It’s even written into our nation’s constitution in the 6th amendment: “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.”

So when would it ever be a good thing to waive that right, if our forefathers thought it was so important? And you do have to waive your right to a jury trial, in writing. The government must consent, and the court must approve.

If Time Is Important

A bench trial can be over with more quickly and more informal than a trial by jury. Usually, in this case, there is only one person going through evidence, considering the law and making a decision instead of 6 or 12 people. It also eliminates the need to select those 6 or 12 people, which takes time.

If a Jury Might Make an Emotional Decision

Our process of law is supposed to require decisions to be made based on the rules. However, experts believe that juries often make an emotional decision rather than take the time to understand a complex legal rule in a case. If your defense is using a more complex rule and believes a judge will both understand and apply the rule impartially, it’s in your best interest to have a bench trial.

If You Have Skeletons in Your Closet

Most of us have things we would rather not let the whole world know about. It’s particularly problematic if you have a history of other activity that doesn’t pertain to your case which might come out in trial and influence a jury against you.

Judges can suppress information that isn’t relevant to the best of their ability, but it doesn’t always work. A judge may be more impartial in this case and stick only to the facts of the case in his or her decision.

How Could it Work Against You?

Some attorneys may try to use a jury trial to their client’s advantage. In a jury of your peers, one of the jurors could always hold out, even if the rest wanted to convict. In that case, a mistrial would be called, and you might be offered a plea deal.

With a bench trial, there’s only one person to be convinced, one way or the other. In addition, the evidence against you cannot be held back from the judge. He or she will know it all. He or she will try to be impartial, but it could be hard to disregard. Some attorneys may try to use as a strategy the fact that a jury would disregard complicated legal rules and therefore choose a jury trial. A judge will not do that.

Take Away

Although bench trials aren’t what we normally think of when we think of going to trial, it might be in your best interest to waive your right to a jury trial. However, it is critical that you consider the counsel of an experienced attorney before you do.

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