In some Manassas DUI trials there will be a choice between a jury trial or a bench trial. An experienced lawyer can advise their client on the benefit of choosing one type of trial over the other, depending on the specifics of the case. It is important to understand the difference between the two types of cases before making a decision on which route to pursue.
The difference between a bench trial and a jury trial is who the finder of fact is in the case. In every case, there are certain facts that have to be proven by the Commonwealth for an individual to be convicted. In a DUI case, the two primary elements are that the accused was actually operating a motor vehicle and was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or a combination of both, while they were operating the motor vehicle.
The fact finder’s job is to determine whether the government has proven its evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. In a jury trial, this determination is made by jurors who have been selected in advance, who have heard the evidence, and who were instructed by the court on the law. In a bench trial, each of the parties, which include the defendant as well as the Commonwealth, asks the judge to be the fact finder in the case.
A jury trial is something that a lawyer will suggest under varying circumstances. In Virginia, the particular issue with juries is that juries not only determine guilt or innocence in a case, but they also determine what the punishment should be. A judge will sentence an individual who is found guilty in line with all of the other cases that they have heard and the outcome is fairly predictable. Whereas a jury has the ability to give the maximum sentence that is available under the law and because juries are not versed in the area of sentencing, there is a very high rate of unpredictability that needs to be factored in when weighing whether a judge or jury should preside over a given case.
A criminal defense lawyer might encourage their client to opt for juries in more serious types of DUI cases. It is important to keep in mind that in a first or second offense DUI case, it is a misdemeanor under Virginia law so all of these cases will be tried by a judge, at least initially. The only way that these cases ever make it to a jury is if the outcome of the first trial is appealed to the circuit court and the jury is requested by either the Commonwealth or the defendant. A third or subsequent offense are all felonies and a person will always have a right to a jury trial in a case like that.
The tactical determinations in whether to use a jury involve balancing the idea that it is often easier to persuade a jury to find the defendant not guilty with the knowledge that juries frequently impose harsher sentences and in some case, much harsher sentences than judges do on the same set of facts. DUI cases that are going to be tried by a jury mostly involve situations where counsel has determined that there is not a great risk of the jury imposing a greater punishment than the judge would. This might be because it is a factual situation that does not allow for a great deal of jail time. It could also be preferable to have a jury trial in a case where the likelihood of a significant amount of jail from the judge is so high that there is no greater risk in sentencing by bringing the case in front of a jury.
On the pros side of the ledger for jury DUI cases is the general idea that jurors are often more likely to acquit someone than a judge would be. In a jury trial, there has to be a unanimous verdict before a person can be convicted. With the jury, you only have to convince one of the jurors that you are not guilty in order for the jury to not be able to reach a guilty verdict, whereas with a judge, there really is only one person making that determination.
The downside of a jury is that in addition to determining guilt or innocence, the jury also gets to determine punishment. For a felony third offense, the jury could, in theory, give the person the entire five years that is allowed by statute, whereas a judge is far more likely to impose a sentence that is less than the statutory maximum. This is a risk that has to be seriously considered before someone would ask for a jury to hear their case.
A jury is chosen in Virginia from a group of citizens that reside in the county, have not been convicted of a felony, and are preselected by the court. In most cases, there will be a large number of potential jurors who are called to jury duty on the day of trial. At the beginning of the trial, the jury selection process begins. This is referred to as voir dire. During that process, attorneys for both the government and the defendant get to ask the jurors questions to determine whether they can be fair and impartial in determining the outcome of the case.
If there are any questions that are answered in a way that leads the court to believe that they cannot be fair and impartial, then that juror will be removed from consideration. Once the process is complete, each side then has the right to make what are called peremptory strikes, which means that they will have the ability to remove three jurors without any good cause. Following that, the jurors remaining will be the jurors that will hear the case, determine guilt or innocence, and, ultimately decide the punishment if there is a conviction.
There are a number of benefits to working with local counsel in Manassas when determining whether to take a case to trial. Local counsel will be familiar with the law of Virginia with respects to DUI cases, and they will also be familiar with the prosecutors, as well as the judges and have a good general sense of what jurors in the county are likely to do in a particular case. The personalities that are involved can make a significant difference in DUI cases. This is the kind of information that only someone, who is familiar with the local court and has worked for a long period of time with these individuals, is going to have access to. This information can assist the client to make the best decision possible in determining whether they wish to take their case to trial or to resolve it by a plea agreement.
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