CRIMINAL:  Jury trial rights in district court (DUI)
DATE:  6/15/2006

The Commonwealth appeals the denial of its petition for a writ of prohibition after the District Court granted motions by Defendants Davis and Clayton, over the Commonwealth’s objection, for bench trials of various misdemeanor traffic violations, including, for both men, first-offense driving under the influence (DUI) .

At issue is the scope of the Commonwealth’s right to demand that such cases be tried by a jury under RCr 9.26(1) . The Jefferson Circuit Court denied the Commonwealth’s request for a writ and the Court of Appeals affirmed. SC granted the Commonwealth’s Motion for Discretionary Review and now reverse the Court of Appeals.

The central dispute in this case involves the proper interpretation and application of RCr 9.26(1), which is instrumental in determining whether a criminal defendant’s trial will be conducted before either a jury or a judge. Although the factual and procedural circumstances between this case and Donta are clearly distinguishable, the Court of Appeals concluded correctly that its earlier opinion had defined the scope of "cases required to be tried by a jury" in RCr 9.26(1) and that "petty offenses" are not, in and of themselves contained within that class of cases .

Although the point is vigorously argued by the Commonwealth, the Court of Appeals was correct that the crimes for which Davis has been charged, including first offense DUI, are "petty offenses," at least as that term has been used in the common law.

The division between "petty" and "serious" offenses has been addressed repeatedly by the United States Supreme Court which has stated, "[W]e have found the most relevant [objective indications of the seriousness with which society regards the offense] in the severity of the maximum authorized penalty.

Having determined that there is no constitutional requirement for a jury trial in this case, the operation of KRS 29A.270 is the only factor which can potentially transform this into a case "required to be tried by a jury." SC held "by stating that a `request’ for a jury trial may be made at any time prior to the time a case is called for trial, [KRS 29A.270(1)] by implication imposes a clear burden on the accused to make a demand for a jury trial ." Donta , 858 S .W.2d at 723. Once a defendant has satisfied that burden and asserted. his right to a jury trial, however, we believe his case is one "required to be tried by a jury" under RCr 9.26(1):

Ultimately, SC  disagreed, with the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that Davis did not make a request for a jury trial as required by KRS 29A.270. Although the trial court record is limited, there is sufficient reason to believe that at his initial appearance Davis requested a jury trial .

This is enough to trigger the operation of RCr 9.26(1), including its requirement that the Commonwealth consent to a waiver of the right to a jury trial in any case that is required to be so tried . Thus the district court’s decision to grant Davis’s motion for a bench trial, despite an objection by the Commonwealth, was error. 

Michael Stevens, ed.

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