If you are facing criminal prosecution here in North Carolina for the first time in your life, you may be surprised to find out that you might not get a jury trial. Most people know that the Constitution says criminal defendants have the right to a trial by a jury of their peers. Fewer people know that the U.S. Supreme Court decided in a case called Baldwin v. New York (1970), that the constitutional promise of a jury trial is only required for “serious offenses.” Then, a bunch of cases after that decided what a “serious offense” might be. Essentially, if the crime you’re charged with carries a maximum punishment of 6 months in jail, or less, the courts have decided that is not a serious offense, and you are not Constitutionally entitled to a jury trial.
The most serious misdemeanor charge you can get in North Carolina is a Class A1 Misdemeanor, which has a maximum possible sentence of 150 days in jail (approximately 5 months). Because a defendant cannot receive more than 5 months in jail for a misdemeanor, every misdemeanor charge in North Carolina starts out in District Court, with a bench trial. A bench trial is a trial where the Judge acts as the judge and the jury. Bench trials are simpler and faster than traditional jury trials, but are held to the same legal standards as jury trials.
If you LOSE your District Court bench trial, criminal defendants then have the right to a jury trial. This is accomplished by appealing the District Court decision to Superior Court. A Superior Court jury trial is conducted “de novo.” De novo is legalese for “brand new,” meaning no one knows anything about what happened in District Court. The jury trial proceeds as if the District Court bench trial never happened. This is good for defendants, as it means that North Carolina actually gives us more protections than are constitutionally required. Whether a case is heard through a bench trial or a jury trial, defendants benefit from the counsel of a skilled attorney. If you have specific questions about your pending criminal case, please get in touch through our ‘Contact Us’ page.
Disclaimer: This blog discusses legal issues generally, and is intended to promote general knowledge. There are many nuances to every legal issue that are NOT discussed in this blog. This blog refers only to North Carolina law, unless otherwise stated. Laws in other jurisdictions vary. Nothing in the WWApple blog should be construed as legal advice. This blog does not form an attorney client relationship with any person. If you have a legal problem, always consult an attorney. Individual cases can vary greatly from general rules. If you would like to discuss a problem with us, please use our “contact us” page to schedule a consultation.