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United States v. Jardee

February 12, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles S. Miller, Jr. United States Magistrate Judge


On January 29, 2010, the Government filed a motion seeking an order setting this matter for a court trial on the grounds that defendant has no right to a jury trial. The court issued a text order granting the Government's motion (Docket No. 13), stating it would be followed by an explanatory opinion. What follows is the court's explanation for striking the jury trial in this case.

The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution provides that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy a right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury . . . ." U.S. Const. amend. VI. Despite the breadth of this language, it has long been construed as applying only to "serious" offenses and not "petty offenses." See, e.g., Lewis v. United States, 518 U.S. 322, 325-326 (1996) ("Lewis"); Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 15 (1968); United States v. Ramsey, 871 F.2d 1365, 1367 (8th Cir. 1989).*fn1

In determining which offenses are "petty" and not "serious," the Supreme Court initially focused upon the nature of the offense and whether a jury trial was allowed at common law. Lewis, 518 U.S. at 325-326; Blanton v. North Los Vegas, 489 U.S. 538, 541 (1988) ("Blanton"). Finding that approach to be unworkable, particularly when there were no common law antecedents for the offenses in question, the Court looked for more "objective indications of the seriousness with which society regards the offense," Blanton, 489 U.S. at 541 & n.5 (1988) (quoting Frank v. United States, 395 U.S. 147, 148 (1969), and decided upon the following framework:

To determine the "seriousness" of an offense, courts should look to the judgment of the legislature creating the offense, which normally is expressed by the maximum penalties it fixes for the offense. Lewis, 518 U.S. at 326; Blanton, at 541. The "judiciary should not substitute its judgment as to seriousness for that of a legislature, which is far better equipped to perform the task . . . ." Lewis, 518 U.S. at 326 (quoting Blanton, 489 U.S. at 541).

When considering the maximum penalties, the most relevant objective factor for determining "seriousness" most often will be the maximum term of imprisonment because of the severity of the loss of liberty that incarceration entails relative to most other penalties. See, e.g., Lewis, 518 U.S. at 327; United States v. Nachtigal, 507 U.S. 1, 3-4 (1993) (per curiam) ("Nachtigal"); Blanton, 489 U.S. at 541-542. "Indeed, because incarceration is an 'intrinsically different' form of punishment, [citation omitted], it is the most powerful indication of whether an offense is 'serious.'" Blanton, 489 U.S. at 542.

Offenses providing for a maximum term of imprisonment of six months or less are considered presumptively "petty." Lewis, 518 U.S. at 326. Offenses providing for a maximum jail term greater than six months in all cases are deemed "serious" and a jury trial is required. Blanton, 489 U.S. at 542. "Petty" in this context, however, does not mean inconsequential, given that even six months' incarceration is a severe deprivation of liberty. Id.. at 542-543. A number of factors went into the Court drawing the presumptive line at six months' imprisonment. In Blanton, the Court stated:

As for a prison term of six months or less, we recognized that it will seldom be viewed by the defendant as "trivial" or "petty." [citation omitted] But we found that the disadvantages of such a sentence, "onerous as though they may be, may be outweighed by the benefits that result from speedy and inexpensive non-jury adjudications." [citation omitted]

Id.; see also Baldwin v. New York, 399 U.S. 66, 71-74 (1970) (considering existing state practices for the prosecution of petty offenses as well as the administrative convenience of a more speedy and less-expensive adjudication); District of Columbia v. Clawans, 300 U.S. 617, 626-629 (1937) (discussing what offenses were triable without a jury under English and colonial practice at the time of the adoption of the Constitution).

While the maximum term of imprisonment will normally be the determining factor, the Court left open the possibility that a jury trial may be required for an offense for which the maximum term of incarceration is six months or less if a legislature has enacted additional penalties which, "viewed in conjunction with incarceration, are so severe that they clearly reflect a legislative determination that the offense in question is a 'serious' one." Blanton, 489 U.S. at 543; accord Lewis, 581 U.S. at 326.

The defendant in this case is charged with the offense of assault by striking, beating, or wounding in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(4). The offense carries a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment and/or a $5,000 fine, making it a Class B misdemeanor and a "petty offense" under federal statutory law. E.g., United States v. Chavez, 204 F.3d 1305, 1311 (11th Cir. 2000) ("Chavez"); 18 U.S.C. §§ 19 (definition of petty offense), 113(a)(4) (term of imprisonment), 3571(b)(6) (fine), & 3559(a)(7) (definition of Class B misdemeanor). Under the Supreme Court cases discussed above, the defendant is clearly not entitled to a jury trial if the foregoing are the only relevant penalties. Lewis, 518 U.S. at 325-326; Nachtigal, 507 U.S. at 2-6; Chavez, 204 F.3d at 1317.

Defendant argues, however, there is an additional penalty that must be considered. That is, a conviction here would qualify as "a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" and result in a prohibition against possessing firearms under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9) that likely would last a lifetime. See United States v. Hayes, __ U.S. __, 129 S.Ct. 1079 (2009) (addressing offenses that are subject to § 922(g)(9)); Chavez, 204 F.3d at 1313-1314 (stating that the violation of 18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(4) in that case likely would meet the threshold definition of a crime of domestic violence under 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(33) and be subject to the provisions of § 922(g)(9)). Defendant argues this additional deprivation of rights makes the prosecution of this case sufficiently "serious" so as to entitle him to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment.

There are conflicting decisions on this issue. Compare Chavez, 204 F.3d at 1313-1314 (the firearms ban under § 922(g)(9) does not impose sufficient additional penalty to invoke the Sixth Amendment right to jury trial); United States v. Combs, No. 8:05CR271, 2005 WL 3262983, at *2-3 (D. Neb. Dec. 1, 2005) (same); with United States v. Smith, 151 F. Supp. 2d 1316 (N.D. Okla. 2001) (contra). The parties have not cited any Eighth Circuit decision directly on point. However, in concluding that a lifetime firearms prohibition does add a sufficiently serious penalty so as to invoke the right to a jury trial, the federal district court in United States v. Smith, supra, relied, in substantial part, upon the Eighth Circuit's decision in Richter v. Fairbanks, 903 F.2d 1202 (8th Cir. 1990) ("Richter").

In Richter, the Eighth Circuit held that a state habeas petitioner was entitled to relief because he had been denied a jury trial in his prosecution for a third DUI offense. Even though the maximum term of imprisonment for the third DUI offense was only six months, state law required, in addition, the suspension of all driving privileges for fifteen years. The court held this additional penalty made the offense sufficiently serious so ...

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