Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
State v. Woolverton, 371 P.3d 941 (Kan. Ct. App. 2016).
This case addresses the following issue:
What conditions must be met in order to be constitutionally entitled to a trial by jury?
The issue in this case includes whether a misdemeanor domestic violence charge with a maximum possible sentence of six months constitutes a “serious offense” which would impose a constitutional right to jury trial for the defendant. A constitutional right to a jury trial depends on whether the defendant has been charged with an offense that is categorized as a serious or a petty offense. Id. at 943. A defendant is only constitutionally entitled to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment if it is a serious offense. Id. No such constitutional right exists if the charged crime is a petty offense. Id. The terms of “serious” and “petty” offenses are to be construed in accordance to the ruling and application of these terms by the United States Supreme Court due to the fact that the Kansas Supreme Court has interpreted the jury-trial right under the Kansas Constitution identically to that of the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Sixth Amendment. Id. If the maximum authorized incarceration period set by the legislature for the offense is no more than six months, then the defendant has no constitutional jury-trial right unless any extra statutory penalties are severe enough to clearly show a legislative determination that the offense was a serious one. Id. at 944. The United States Supreme Court has previously ruled that six month sentences with additional possible charges amounting to $1,000 and $5,000 are still considered petty offenses for the purposes of the right to a jury-trial. Id.
In the current case, the appellant was charged with misdemeanor domestic violence which included a maximum possible punishment of six months incarceration, $500 fine, and a domestic-violence-offender assessment and with orders to follow its recommendations. Id. Kansas law also allows a court to impose up to two years of probation in lieu of a jail sentence in misdemeanor cases. Id. This court found that the possible maximum punishments in this case were no more severe than the two similar cases heard by the United States Supreme Court in which the Court determined the offenses to be petty offenses. Id. In one of the cases heard by the United States Supreme Court, the possible punishment included up to six months incarceration, a fine of up to $1,000, automatic loss of driver’s license for 90 days, and had to attend and pay for an alcohol-abuse-education course. Id. The Court held that the additional consequences did not turn the otherwise-petty offense into a serious one for Sixth Amendment purposes. Id. The other case imposed a maximum fine of $5,000 and six months imprisonment, or five year probation term in lieu of the prison sentence. Id. The Court held that the possible five year probation term did not raise the crime to a serious offense because a fine a probation are “far less intrusive than incarceration.” Id. This court concluded that by looking only at the punishments that are directly established by statute for this offense, the maximum possible sentence to be imposed, does not reach the definition of serious offense and is, therefore, a petty offense. Id. Due to the fact that the charge was classified as a petty offense, the appellant was not constitutionally entitled to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment. Id.