“Constitutional amendment providing that a person accused of any criminal offense for which the State is not seeking a sentence of death in superior court may; in writing or on the record in court and with the consent of the trial judge, waive the person’s right to a trial by jury”
On Tuesday, North Carolina voters will choose whether to endorse the above amendment to their state constitution, allowing felony defendants to opt for bench trials. Every other state already affords noncapital criminal defendants this right to choose. The proposal was passed onto the ballot by the state General Assembly almost unanimously. On its face, this appears to be a straightforward change; unanimity among procedural state laws is common. So why has North Carolina clung to mandatory felony jury trials for so long? Are the other forty-nine states really correct here? Several considerations must be addressed.
The Accused’s Right to Choose
No matter the outcome of the Tuesday vote, North Carolina defendants will retain their Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury; what is up for modification is their right to waive this right. In a circumstance of alleged criminal conduct, the Supreme Court applies a heightened scrutiny standard for the waiver of constitutionally afforded rights. The Court has described this standard as a “knowing, voluntary, intentional standard.” Upon meeting this heightened standard, North Carolina, like every other state, already allows criminal defendants to waive their right to a trial by jury; the defendant can plead guilty. Not only that, defendants can choose to waive their Fifth Amendment protection from self-incrimination. Undoubtedly, a supporting argument cannot be buttressed by the need to protect the rights of the accused while defendants are already allowed to circumvent their rights. Election of a bench trial is a natural extension of the defendant’s right to choose.
The driving force behind the proposed amendment is economic efficiency. Fewer jury trials equates to less money spent. That said, statistics from the rest of the country shows that the actual percentage of criminal defendants waiving jury trial is relatively small. As such, the pure trial cost reduction would also be minimal. Added economic savings could also occur through the more legally accurate rulings of judges, resulting in fewer appeals. Conversely, there would be some amount of new appeals based on the defendant’s election to waive. Either way, the overall savings for the state does not appear to be an overwhelming factor in support of such measure.
Arguments are being made that the amendment will alter theprocedural aspect of these criminal cases. Some assert that defendants will be pressured into waiver by prosecutors, while others believe the measure will increase forum shopping. Both of these are already abundantly present occurrences. Prosecutors cut deals with defendants for guilty pleas on lesser charges, avoiding the jury trial. Likewise, motions to transfer are employed to gain a more favorable or fair trial for the accused. No reason arises that there would be a great increase in either of these to warrant continuance of mandatory jury trials.
In short, the time has come in North Carolina for it to align its laws with the rest of the country. The accused retains all of its guaranteed rights, while gaining one new one. There is little to no harm done to the procedural functions of the court. And though economic savings may be limited, the downside to pursuit of these savings does not outweigh the gains.