Judge or Jury: What's Better?

Defense lawyers will try to talk you into a jury trial ...

If you’re going to fight your driving offense or DUI, does it really matter whether it is argued in front of a judge or a jury? Defense lawyers will nearly always say that a jury trial is better for a defendant. There some truth to this principle but – like everything else involving law and lawyers – it’s complicated.

If you elect to present your case in front of a jury, consider these factors:

  • when defendants elect jury trials, there’s a tendency for the state to send a more experienced prosecutor against you than if the case were in front of a judge,
  • the rules of evidence are technical and complicated and a judge, resenting the time and trouble caused by jury trials, may insist on a strict following of the rules – something that could be hard to do if you’re representing yourself,
  • you’re dealing with a jury, 6 to 12 people (usually all drivers) who are probably unhappy to be in court and who may be impatient with a DUI or a reckless driving defendant with a tenuous claim, and
  • a jury trial tends to last longer than a non-jury trial, thus raising legal costs.

On the other hand, there can be good reasons to insist on a jury trial. Here are a few:

  • just as jurors may be unsympathetic to tenuous driving charges, they also may feel victimized by the traffic court system. In other words, if you make a really convincing presentation, a jury is probably more likely than a judge to side with you,
  • a jury trial may be a better choice if you face especially serious consequences from a guilty verdict—like the risk of losing your license or an astronomical increase in your insurance premiums. Because the penalties are so high, it may be better to gamble on the whims of a jury, than rely on a more hardened judge, and
  • jury trials are time-consuming for you, judges, prosecutors, and the police. This means once you ask for one, the system has some incentive to settle your case without going to trial. Deals can take many forms, depending on the situation. For example, if you are charged with speeding and running a stop sign, the prosecutor might offer to drop one of the charges if you plead guilty to the other.

Two other things that may influence your choice:

  • the format of a jury trial is similar to a formal nonjury trial except for one huge difference: You must participate in the process of choosing a jury, and
  • don’t assume that because you demand a jury trial you must be convicted by the vote of 12 unanimous jurors. In traffic cases, some states provide for eight-member, six-member or even four-member juries. And other states allow jurors to reach a verdict on a 5–1 or 10–2 vote. Check with the court clerk for your state’s rules.

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