Under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – and its counterpart in the Florida state constitution under Article 1, Section 16 – all criminal prosecutions require a trial by jury. The Sixth Amendment provides that “[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.”
However, the Bill of Rights isn’t the first place in the Constitution to mention jury trials. Article III of the U.S. Constitution is where the governing authority of U.S. courts are granted and defined. Under Section 2, clause 3, “[the] Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury…”As a result, the U.S. Constitution clearly establishes the right to a jury trial for all criminal trials.
Unfortunately, nothing is rarely – if ever – simple when it comes to constitutional interpretation. After all, we typically have nine people whose only job is primarily to tell us what the constitution means. Furthermore, only five of those nine people end up sort of agreeing on a particular interpretation in quite a few cases.
The Supreme Court Limits the Right to a Jury Trial
In 1888, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the constitutional right to a jury trial was limited to only those crimes where common law courts recognized such a right at the time the Constitution’s drafting.[i] At common law, jury trials were only available for “serious” crimes and offenses, rather than “petty” ones.
Subsequently, the Florida Supreme Court recognized the following four classes of crimes that were serious enough to afford the right to a trial by jury:
- Crimes that were traditionally indictable at common law;
- Crimes of moral turpitude;
- Crimes that were “inherently evil” at common law; and
- Crimes that involved a maximum prison sentence exceeding six months.
Simply put, an accused’s right to a trial by jury depends on whether courts historically granted a jury trial for the crime with which they are charged. Thus, our constitutional right to a jury trial – according to the Supreme Courts of the United States and Florida – is a continued legal tradition passed down from English and colonial judges.
However, if the accused is charged with a crime punishable by imprisonment for up to six months or less, but qualifies under one of the other categories, they may still be entitled to a trial by jury. For example, although the maximum prison sentence for simple assault is 60 days, common law courts traditionally deemed the crime to be inherently evil.
So, are traffic infractions severe enough to accord the offender a constitutionally guaranteed right to a jury trial? Given that most traffic violations did not exist yet when the Constitution was drafted, it’s safe to say that speeding tickets do not trigger your right to a jury trial.
What about perjury: lying under oath? Common law courts considered perjury to be a crime of moral turpitude, which generally means “the violation of decent, moral and honest behaviour [sp] and an act of depravity or vileness.”[ii] Therefore, perjury charges will trigger the right to a jury trial.
A Sarasota Criminal Defense Attorney You Can Trust
If you have been charged with a crime, it is in your best interests to consult an experienced Sarasota criminal defense attorney regarding your constitutional rights. At The Law Office of Wyndel G. Darville, PLLC, I draw from years of valuable experience as a former prosecutor to ensure your constitutional right to due process of law is not infringed. I will strenuously advocate for your legal rights and best interests, to ensure that any criminal proceedings instituted against you are conducted fairly and with integrity.
Call my office at (941) 564-5319 for a free, confidential 30-minute consultation regarding your rights and available legal options.
[i] Callan v. Wilson, 127 US 540, 549 (1888) (“[Article III] is to be interpreted in light of the principles which, at common law, determined whether the accused, in a given class of cases, was entitled to be tried by a jury.”).