Judge or Jury Trial: What's Better If You're Charged with a DUI?

Some DUI defendants forgo the right to a jury trial to have a judge decide their case instead.

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law

Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol (DUI) is generally a crime. So, if you're charged with a DUI offense, you normally have the right to a jury trial. In other words, you can request that the court impanel a group of jurors to decide whether you're guilty.

But there's another option for defendants who decide to fight their case at trial: a "bench trial." A bench trial is where the attorneys present evidence and argument directly to the judge, who then decides whether the state has proven the defendant guilty. With a bench trial, there's no jury involved at all.

Does it really matter whether a case is argued in front of a judge or a jury? Defense lawyers almost always opt for a jury rather than a bench trial. Why? Because in most cases, defense attorneys believe they have better chances of beating the case with a jury.

How Jury Trials and Bench (Judge) Trials Differ

An experienced DUI attorney (whether a privately hired lawyer or public defender) is best situated to know whether a jury trial or trial-by-judge is preferable in a particular case. But here are some of the differences a person can be mindful when making this decision:

  • Length of the trial. Jury trials typically take longer than bench trials because it takes time to select the jurors that will decide the case and for the judge to explain the law to the jurors.
  • Possibility of a hung jury. If jurors can't reach a unanimous decision on guilt, the court will normally declare a mistrial based on what's called a "hung jury." Basically, a mistrial ends the trial without a resolution. The prosecution can retry a defendant following a mistrial, but they don't always bother to do so. So, in some cases, a mistrial based on a hung jury amounts to a win for the defendant. With a bench trial, there's no jury involved, so a hung jury isn't possible.
  • Jurors don't always follow the law. The judge instructs the jury on what the law is and how it applies to the case. Basically, these instructions amount to an explanation of what the prosecution must prove to get a conviction and what evidence the jurors are allowed to consider. But jurors don't always follow the rules. When a jury strays from the black letter of the law, it can sometimes go in the defendant's favor. For instance, in a case where the defendant is technically guilty of the charge but has a compelling excuse, a jury might be willing to nevertheless find the defendant not guilty. However, it can also go the other way. For example, jurors who believe a defendant's conduct was particularly egregious might be willing to convict despite there being some holes in the prosecution's evidence.
  • Judges are more predictable with legal issues. Judges are more likely to stick to the law rather than make a decision based on extraneous circumstances. So a defendant who has a strong—but technical—legal defense to a DUI charge might fare better with a trial-by-judge.

Lots of other factors—like the judge's track record with DUI defendants—might inform whether it's smart to waive the right to a jury trial in a given case. But, again, this decision is best left up to an experienced DUI lawyer.

What's the Same in Both Types of Trials

In many respects, bench and jury trials are the same. Here are a few important similarities:

  • What the prosecution must prove. In bench and jury trials, the prosecution must prove the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt to get a conviction. In other words, the prosecution's evidence needs to be so convincing that no reasonable person would question the defendant's guilt.
  • Sentencing is done by the judge. The judge will sentence the defendant (decide on the penalties) regardless of whether the conviction resulted from a bench or jury trial.
  • The rules of evidence are the same. The standards governing what evidence is admissible at trial are the same whether the trial is in front of a jury or only a judge.

In other words, the basics of how a DUI trial works are the same regardless of who decides guilt.

Talk to an Attorney

If you have questions about a DUI case, it's always best to talk to an experienced attorney as soon as possible. Every case is different, and an attorney can help you decide how best to handle your situation.

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