LEGAL GUIDE
Written by Avvo Staff | Feb 24, 2016

2 possibilities for ticket court: Jury trial vs. judge trial

The differences between the two, and when you'd have each type of trial

When you have to appear in court to fight a ticket, you'll have the opportunity to argue your case. You'll either do this before a judge, or before both a judge and a jury.

A judge trial means that a judge, also called a magistrate, will hear your case and offer a decision. Jury trials, by contrast, involve a panel of jurors who make a judgment about your case.

Trial by judge in traffic ticket court

A trial by judge, also called a bench trial, involves several steps. You'll present your case to the court, the prosecutor or the responding officer will give testimony, and the judge will rule on the case. More complex cases might involve witness testimony as well.

No jury will be present to hear the facts of the case. The judge will simply listen to your testimony and that of the officer who issues the citation. At the end, the judge will decide whether you are guilty or innocent of the charges. It's possible for the judge to make that decision immediately. However, the judge may also deliberate for a while before deciding.

There are certain advantages to having a judge trial. The trial itself is usually:

  • Faster: Trials by judge take less time because you don't have to deal with jury selection. The judge is there from the start, which can speed up the process considerably.

  • Cheaper: Most jurisdictions charge defendants, especially if they're found guilty, for the court's time. Since jury trials take longer, a trial by judge might prove less costly. You'll also save money when you settle your bill with your attorney.

Additionally, a judge can offer certain advantages over a jury, such as:

  • Legal understanding: Since judges are familiar with the law, neither the prosecution nor the defense has to explain complicated terms or wait while jurors listen to instructions.

  • Impartiality: Jurors sometimes make judgments or decisions based on emotion even though they're instructed to remain objective. Judges, by contrast, are well-versed in maintaining impartiality. They will make their judgments based solely on the facts of the case.

In traffic ticket court, judge trials are far more common in traffic ticket court than jury trials. This is because traffic tickets are generally less serious and less complicated than other offenses. They don't involve as much evidence, or as many documents.

If you're facing a more serious traffic-related offense, such as a DUI, a jury trial may be more beneficial. When you're facing stiffer penalties, it can help to have the decision rest in the hands of multiple people who need to agree. For some offenses, a jury trial might even be the default.

Trial by jury in traffic ticket court

Jury trials proceed exactly like judge trials except that you must choose a jury first. Jury selection can add several days or several weeks to the process, depending on the court's docket and its method of trying cases.

The jurors hear the case like a judge would and deliberate on the verdict. These trials take longer and often cost more money, but you might want to insist upon a jury for the following reasons:

  • Jurors' emotions can work in your favor.

  • More than one person will have to weigh the evidence and consider the testimony.

  • The typical juror's lack of legal experience can benefit your side.

Despite these benefits, a jury trial is always a gamble. You might get a sympathetic panel of jurors or the complete opposite, depending on who reports for jury duty.

Additionally, if you have a trial by jury in traffic ticket court, you will probably face a prosecutor. Prosecutors often don't attend judge trials for less-serious cases, and leave the state's side up to the responding officer.

State rules for traffic court trials

Whether you can choose between a judge and jury trial depends on where you live. According to San Diego attorney Jordon Robert Harlan, defendants in traffic court aren't entitled to a jury trial in California. However, other states may allow you to request the type of trial in certain cases.

Some states also have different rules for jury trials in traffic ticket court. For instance, they may have smaller jury pools. A typical criminal trial uses a jury of 12 people, but a traffic trial might include 4, 6, or 8 jurors. This speeds up the process, but also means fewer people will hear your case and debate your innocence or guilt.

Finally, the rules for unanimity might also differ. Criminal trials demand that all jurors agree on a verdict. Otherwise, the state has to retry the case or drop the charges. In traffic court, however, the court sometimes uses lower standards, such as a 5-to-1 vote.

Considering consulting a traffic law lawyer who has experience in your city or county. Your attorney can explain the rules and policies in that jurisdiction and help you decide how you should move forward.

Both a judge trial and a jury trial involve similar elements and procedures, but understanding both types can help you. If you're facing charges in traffic ticket court, you can make informed decisions about your case, and let your lawyer know your preference when making a choice is an option.

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