Is There a Right to Trial by Jury in New Jersey DWI Cases?

By W.S. Gilbert (d. 1911) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThe right to a trial by jury is a fundamental principle of our criminal justice system enshrined in our Constitution. What many people might not know, however, is that jury trials are not guaranteed in all criminal cases. The Sixth Amendment only guarantees a jury trial in criminal cases where the potential penalty is more than six months’ imprisonment. A pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, spanning more than a century, established that this restriction extends to DWI cases. Some, but not all, states allow jury trials even when not constitutionally required to do so, but not New Jersey. DWI cases in New Jersey are tried as “traffic offenses” before a municipal court judge.

Article III of the Constitution, which establishes the Judicial Branch of the federal government, states that “[t]he Trial of all Crimes…shall be by Jury.” The Sixth Amendment states that a defendant has a right to trial “by an impartial jury.” These provisions originally only applied to federal criminal cases. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified after the Civil War, extended the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to trial by jury in all criminal cases in state courts. The court system took some time, however, to figure out exactly how far this guarantee went.

An 1888 Supreme Court decision, Callan v. Wilson, considered what the word “crime” means as it is used in Article III and the Sixth Amendment. The court applied the definition from English common law, which made a distinction between serious crimes, including misdemeanors and felonies, and “petty offenses.” It found that the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury applied to serious crimes at the state level, but not petty offenses.

More than a century later, in 1989, the Supreme Court ruled on whether a DWI defendant had the right to a trial by jury in Blanton v. North Las Vegas. The court had issued numerous rulings since Callan, maintaining that the right to a jury trial does not apply to state-level petty offenses. In Blanton, it ruled that DWI was a petty offense under Nevada law because the maximum penalty was six months or less in jail.

Whether a DWI defendant has the right to a jury trial therefore depends, in part, on the maximum possible penalty in the state where he or she is facing charges. If a state treats DWI as a criminal offense but does not prescribe a penalty of more than six months, the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial does not apply. Some states allow jury trials in these types of cases anyway, although they might use a six-member jury instead of one with 12 members.

In New Jersey, DWI is classified as a “traffic offense” rather than a criminal offense. A first-offense DWI in New Jersey has a maximum jail sentence of 48 hours, while the maximum sentence for a second offense is 90 days. A third offense has a minimum sentence of 180 days in jail, but the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury still does not apply unless the defendant has also been charged with an offense under New Jersey’s criminal statutes.

An arrest for DWI can have a serious impact on your life, and you should seek the assistance of a qualified and skilled DWI attorney to advocate for you and protect your rights. We have dedicated 100% of our law practice at Levow & Associates to representing people arrested for and charged with DWI in New Jersey. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team, contact us today online or at (877) 975-3399.

More Blog Posts:

Other Offenses Commonly Associated with DWI in New Jersey, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 6, 2014

New Jersey Supreme Court Reverses DWI Conviction, Rules that Trial Court Could Not Consider Evidence from Pre-Trial Suppression Hearing as Proof of Guilt, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 3, 2014

Court Decision Changes Warning Requirements for New Jersey Police Administering Breath Tests to DWI Suspects, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, November 30, 2014

Photo credit: By W.S. Gilbert (d. 1911) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.