We recently brought you news of the Arizona Appeals Court ruling that many misdemeanor charges are jury trial-worthy. That’s some good news, but it is nowhere near the level of protection that we are supposedly guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution:
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, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
In all criminal prosecutions…
Yet across the country it is very common for people to be denied this Constitutionally-guaranteed right to trial by jury for misdemeanors that put them at risk of fewer than six months incarceration. One of the excuses given for blatantly violating this very clear guarantee in the Bill of Rights is that we can’t be wasting tax dollars on these supposedly “minor” crimes that are no big deal. But this recent article in Time magazine urges us to rethink that.
Christian Watts made a bad decision in 2002, and he has been paying for it ever since. As a 31-year-old, Watts was working for a Las Vegas limousine service when he connected a friend with someone who had a supply of the illegal party drug MDMA, or ecstasy. Federal investigators who were tracking another drug dealer got wind of the deal, and charged him with felony possession. At the advice of his lawyers, he pleaded the conviction down to a misdemeanor, and served no jail time.
But he says he still feels imprisoned by his conviction. “It’s like a have a black mark on me that disqualifies me in the forum of public opinion,” says Watts, now 40, working as a dog walker and Crossfit trainer in Las Vegas, after spending the past decade earning an associates, bachelors and working toward his Master’s degree. “My life is stuck in a standstill.”
Click through for the entire article.
One of the major impacts of a criminal conviction of any kind—even a so-called “minor” conviction of a misdemeanor—is that it severely hampers an individual’s employment prospects. Especially in a bad economy with a large pool of job seekers, a misdemeanor conviction can be an easy way for employers to quickly winnow down a pile of applications. Those who are unable to find gainful employment to support themselves and their families have no choice but to find other ways to survive, such as depending on tax-funded social programs when not permitted to be productive members of the community, or perhaps to commit more criminal offenses to stay afloat, entangling them further in the legal system. Even very minor offenses have landed people in prison for life without parole, thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes rules, and the like.
Some people argue that it is a waste of tax dollars to allow a fair trial by jury for every single person accused of a crime, as guaranteed to each of us in the Bill of Rights. But if an offense is too minor to waste money on a jury trial, then why are we wasting money arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning someone for it? Cutting corners on justice by violating a person’s Constitutionally-guaranteed right to a jury trial to save a buck is hardly the place to be pinching pennies. If we can afford to arrest, prosecute, and imprison someone for an offense, then we can afford to honor their Constitutionally-guaranteed right to a fair trial by jury.
Those working in the legal system know this. More likely, the primary motivation for denying defendants the right to trial by jury has to do with the careers and livelihoods dependent on cycling a large volume of defendants through the courts and jails. It is much harder to convince 6 or 12 independent individuals to convict someone for an offense that has harmed nobody—punishing a peaceful person for nothing more than offending the sensibilities of the State—than it is to convince a lone judge, oftentimes a former prosecutor himself, with a vested interest in perpetuating the abusive legal cycle from which he makes his living.
In most courts in the United States a single juror (and in every court in the United States, no more than 3 jurors) can protect a defendant, not only from potential prison time, but also from having the rest of his life held hostage by a criminal record, with two simple words: Not Guilty. Many victimless crimes are classified as misdemeanors—prime candidates for jury nullification. But there is no jury nullification if there is no jury, and that is well known to prosecutors and judges who loathe the idea that their plans for a defendant’s future can be upended by a jury of his peers.