Jury v. Bench Trials in Florida

March 12, 2022 Criminal Defense

In Florida criminal defense proceedings, defendant can generally take their case to trial before either a judge or a jury of their peers. A trial in front of only a judge is referred to as a “bench trial.” Jury trials are definitely more common and encapsulate the image brought to mind when the public at large hears about a trial. In this blog post, we will explore the differences and similarities between these two types of trials in Florida.

An Overview

A jury trial usually means that the defendant will fight for their freedom in front of a judge while a 6- or 12-member jury panel decides on issues of factfinding. During jury trials, the jury hears the arguments and views the evidence and decides whether or not the state has met their burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

A bench trial means that a defendant fights for their freedom in front of only a judge. The judge is the finder of fact and the one who determines the admissibility of evidence. They will also make rulings on objections and ultimately determine the defendant’s guilt.

What Determines Whether I Get a Jury or Bench Trial?

Under Florida law, the right to a jury trial is only available for certain cases. The cases include ones in which the defendant violated:

  • State law;
  • A county or municipal ordinance; or
  • A federal statute in a case that is in state court.

Also involves in this determination is whether the potential punishment for your conviction involves prison time. If so, you can request a trial by jury. The United States Supreme Court previously determined that criminal defendant have the constitutional right to trial by jury only for “serious” criminal matters. Offenses that carry the possibility of six or less months in jail are generally not guaranteed a jury trial. Keep in mind that the Supreme Court’s ruling sets a minimum standard, so States can provide greater trial by jury rights to criminal defendants.

There is not right to a bench trial. While a defendant can waive their right to a jury trial and request a bench trial, the state can object or the judge can reject the jury trial waiver, meaning that you will be tried before a jury.

Which Trial Type is Better?

There are pros and cons to each type of trial. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Bench trials are usually much faster than jury trials because there will not be a jury selection or deliberations over jury instructions. Additionally, judges are well-versed in the law and generally come to a decision faster than a jury of peers is likely to.
  • In a trial by jury, the state has to convince the jury that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This can be a good thing for criminal defendants because juries can be harder to persuade than just one judge. If the state cannot get the adequate approval from jurors, you could be free from your charges due to a mistrial. That could lead to a complete dismissal of charges.
  • Bench trials can sometimes result in a better application of legal rules. Since legal rules can be incredibly complex, a lot of attorneys and legal experts get worried that a jury of peers would have difficulty fully analyzing these complex rules. Some even worry that the jurors will ignore the legal rule altogether. With very complex legal issues, a bench trial could be a better option since judges are generally better at digesting these heavy legal concepts.
  • Jury trial have been said to be less favorable towards defendants who are involving in highly emotional cases. Some legal experts believe that jurors decide based on emotion more often than the legal rules they have been instructed to apply. If your case is highly provocative and there is a high-risk of making the jury overly emotional – it could result in an unfavorable verdict.
  • Jury trials can be dangerous for defendants who will have facts come out about them that could be distracting or irrelevant. Even if the judge instructs the jurors to disregard the distracting or irrelevant fact, a juror could simply decide not to or could unconsciously have a tough time disregarding the information. A judge could be better for this because they are less emotional and more neutral that jurors, generally.

Some Commonalities

Whether you ultimately undergo a jury trial or a bench trial, there will be many constants:

  • With either type of trial, if you are convicted, you may appeal your conviction to a higher court.
  • With either type of trial, the court must follow the same rules of evidence and criminal procedure.
  • With either type of trial, the rulings must be consistent.

Tallahassee Criminal Defense Attorney

If you or a loved one has been accused of a crime, contact a qualified Tallahassee criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Navigating the legal system, deciding which trial type better suits your legal matter, and discussing defenses will be indispensable in handling your legal matter with care. Don Pumphrey and the members of the legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm have decades of experience assisting Florida’s criminal defendants and will fight for your freedom. Give us a call at (850) 681 – 7777 or send an online message today to discuss your legal matter during an open and free consultation with an attorney in our team.

Written by Gabi D’Esposito

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