Criminal Bench Trials vs. Jury Trials in Utah

Criminal trials are often heard and decided by a jury of ordinary citizens. This is a unique and important part of the American justice system, but a jury is not present in every single case.

Defendants may have a right to demand a jury trial depending on their charges, but they can waive this right in favor of a bench trial. A jury trial involves gathering people from the community to reach a verdict on a case. In a bench trial, the judge plays the role of both judge and jury. Criminal defendants are guaranteed a jury trial in all felony cases. In misdemeanor cases, the right must be asserted by the defendant. Bench trials are the norm for infractions. Which one is better depends on the circumstances of your case. You should weigh your options with an attorney before deciding.

If you have an upcoming criminal trial, our Utah criminal defense attorneys can help you prepare. Preparations include picking a jury for a jury trial or going with a bench trial. Call Overson & Bugden (801) 758-2287 for a free case evaluation.

The Difference Between a Criminal Bench and Jury Trial in Utah

Criminal trials require someone to act as a fact finder who reaches a verdict. In many trials, this duty falls to a jury of the defendant’s peers. In others, the judge might act as fact finder in a bench trial. It might be possible to waive your right to a jury trial and have a bench trial, but you should talk about this with our Provo criminal defense lawyers first.

A jury trial is probably the more common way to try a criminal case. A trial by jury is guaranteed for most, but not all, cases in Utah. A jury is made up of ordinary people from the surrounding community in which the crime occurred. Jurors must be screened before they are selected to ensure they have no connection to the defendant or alleged victim.

According to Utah Code § 71B-1-104(1), the number of jurors on a case depends on the most serious charge. In capital cases, there must be 12 jurors. In noncapital, first-degree felony aggravated murder or other criminal cases punishable by more than 1 year in jail or prison, there must be 8 jurors. If the maximum possible sentence for the most serious charge is at least 6 months, but less than 1 year, only 6 jurors are required. For even shorter sentences, only 4 jurors are required.

In a bench trial, the judge takes on the role of fact finder and reaches the final verdict alone. There is no jury panel or jury selection process at all. Other than that, there are no significant differences between the trial processes for jury and bench trials.

When Do I Get a Criminal Bench or Jury Trial in Utah?

The United States Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to a jury trial for crimes punishable by at least 6 months in jail or prison. However, Utah takes this right further and guarantees a jury trial in all felony and misdemeanor cases.

According to Utah Code § 77-1-6(2)(e) and the Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure 17, only defendants facing charges for infractions are not entitled to a trial by jury. If you are charged with felonies or misdemeanors, which make up the majority of criminal offenses, you have the right to a trial by jury. Juries are guaranteed in felony cases, but a misdemeanor defendant must demand a jury within 14 days of the trial.

Alternatively, felony defendants can instead request a bench trial if they feel more comfortable presenting their case to a judge instead of a group of strangers. For misdemeanor defendants, they can waive their right to a jury by not making the demand for one within the 14-day time limit. Our West Valley City criminal defense attorneys can discuss these options with you before your trial begins.

In felony cases, a jury trial is presumed, and courts are likely to go ahead and arrange a jury selection pool unless the defendant says otherwise. If you want to explore other options, it is important to have your attorney speak up on your behalf.

Can I Choose a Bench or Jury Trial for My Utah Criminal Case?

You absolutely have the right to choose a bench trial over a jury trial. Although presenting your case to a panel of jurors can feel intimidating, many defense attorneys prefer jurors over judges. Jurors tend to apply common sense reasoning to criminal cases, while judges sometimes get bogged down in rules and procedures.

Many defendants choose to have a bench trial because the nature of their case is very scandalous or emotionally charged. For example, a defendant charged with a very violent crime against a child might rather present their case to a judge who is less likely to let their emotions cloud their judgment. If this sounds like your case, our South Jordan criminal defense attorneys can help you waive your right to a jury trial in favor of a bench trial.

Other times, a case might be overly complicated, and jurors might have trouble keeping up. Jurors are ordinary people from all walks of life, and they usually have no legal background or experience with courtroom procedures. Sometimes, the laws and facts in a criminal case are so complex that the verdict is best left to an experienced judge in a bench trial who can balance the case’s facts, laws, and procedures.

Another example of when a bench trial is preferable is when a case receives a lot of publicity. With the internet and social media, news about a criminal case can spread at lightspeed. It is not unusual for a case to make local or even national headlines very quickly. In those cases, finding a pool of jurors who are not familiar with the case and therefore are free from prejudgment may be difficult, if not impossible. A jury trial might lead to various appeals and challenges to the case’s fairness, but a bench trial may help your case move along a bit smoother.

Call Our Utah Criminal Defense Attorney

If you or someone you know is facing criminal charges, our Taylorsville criminal defense attorneys can help you prepare for a jury trial or bench trial. For a free evaluation of your case, call our team at Overson & Bugden at (801) 758-2287.