April 6, 2018

State Has No Right to a Jury Trial in Misdemeanor Cases; State v. Bonds

Category: Indiana Law Review | Author: | Share:

We don’t often talk about purely criminal issues. But there are occasionally decisions that strike us as interesting. This is one of them.

Bonds was charged with two misdemeanor offenses in June 2016. At a December 2016 pre-trial conference, Bonds asked that the case be set for a bench trial. The State told the trial court that it did not waive a jury trial, but the trial court went ahead and set the matter for a bench trial. The State followed this with a written demand for a jury trial, which the trial court rejected. The State then appealed.

On appeal, the Court first looked at the right to a jury trial and found that the United States and Indiana Constitutions spoke of the accused right to a jury trial, not the State’s right. Rather, the State’s right to a jury trial came from Indiana Code § 35-37-1-2, which states that

[t]he defendant and prosecuting attorney, with the assent of the court, may submit the trial to the court. Unless a defendant waives the right to a jury trial under the Indiana Rules of Criminal Procedure, all other trials must be by jury.

And while the right to a jury trial in felony cases is automatic, it is not in misdemeanor cases, where it is controlled by Rule 22 of the Indiana Rules of Criminal Procedure. And that Rule speaks of a defendant’s right to demand a trial by jury, not the State’s. Based on these authorities, the Court concluded that only a defendant has the right to demand a jury trial, and that the State cannot force a jury trial over a defendant’s objection.

The State argued that even if it did not have the right to demand a jury trial, Bonds could only receive a bench trial if the State consented. This argument was based on the statute above, which was amended in 2015. The biggest change to the statute was adding the second sentence. The State argued that using the second sentence to prevent it from consenting to a bench trial nullified the first sentence. Again, the Court disagreed.

Contrary to the State’s claim, however, we interpret the changes to Indiana Code section 35-37-1-2 as clarifying that the unchanged language provides the procedure for waiving a jury trial in a felony case while the added language clarifies the procedure for waiving a jury trial in a misdemeanor case. We believe that this interpretation better encompasses the likely intent of the General Assembly as it would not render any part of the amended version superfluous or meaningless. Stated differently, the addition of the reference to Criminal Rule 22, which again controls in cases involving only misdemeanor charges, would arguably have no bearing on the first sentence which has long been applied to cases involving felony charges.

In short, misdemeanors are to be treated differently than felonies, and it is the defendant, not the State, which gets to choose whether to have a jury or bench trial.

Lesson:

In a case involving a criminal misdemeanor, only the defendants, and not the State, gets to choose whether to have a jury or bench trial.