Want a bench trial instead of a jury trial? Think again

Everyone knows that if a person is charged with a criminal offense, he or she has a right to a jury trial. But what if the person does not want a jury trial and instead wants the judge to decide if he or she is innocent or guilty? A judge trial is referred to as a bench trial, so a single person (the judge) decides the defendant’s fate rather than the jury (six or twelve random people depending on whether the offense is a misdemeanor or felony). Most people would rather have a jury trial, than bench, because the jury must be unanimous in order to convict. So all the jurors must agree that the defendant is guilty rather than just one (the judge). Jurors might feel more sympathy for a defendant than some cranky, jaded, judge. But depending on the circumstances, there are some situations where a bench trial might be advantageous. This could be true if there is a particularly complicated legal defense, and the defendant believes the judge is more likely to understand the defense. Also, a bench trial is much shorter than a jury trial because picking a jury takes time (multiple days for complex cases), and the trial itself goes much faster if a jury is not involved. If the defendant is paying a private attorney for trial, it could be cheaper for the defendant do a bench trial rather than a jury trial. Moreover, if the defendant wants to appeal the trial court’s legal decision to the next level, a bench trial can give the defendant the record needed to appeal, without the cost and time of a jury trial.

So a person has decided that for whatever reason, a bench trial makes more sense. Does the person have a right to a bench trial? If the charge is DUI, the answer is most likely no! The reason is that for misdemeanor offenses filed in District Court, there is a court rule that allows a prosecutor to demand a jury trial. That rule is CrRLJ 6.1.1(b). For whatever reasons, prosecutors in King County and other jurisdictions routinely demand a jury trial on a DUI charge, and sometimes, on all charges. I have never quite understood why the prosecutors demand a jury trial on DUI charges, or any charge for that matter. A bench trial is shorter and therefore costs the taxpayers less money. I would think the government would be excited that a defendant wants a less costly trial? It is possible that prosecutors believe defense attorneys will get the trial set with a particularly sympathetic judge. Ironically, on more serious felony charges, the prosecutor does not have the ability to demand a jury trial on the case. CrR 6.1, the Superior Court equivalent of CrRLJ 6.1.1, requires the defendant to file a written waiver of the right to a jury trial, and leaves it up to the trial court whether to allow a bench trial on a particular case.