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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, 52 Kan. App. 2d 700, 371 P.3d 941 (2016).

This case addresses the following issue:

Is a misdemeanor domestic-battery charge subject to the constitutional right to a jury trial?

This case explored whether or not the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a right to trial by jury applied to a misdemeanor charge for domestic violence. Id. at 701. Relying on past decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, the court found that, based upon the potential sentence of six months and lack of any additional legislative indication that the charge was to be considered “serious offense,” the crime was considered a “petty offense” to which no right to a jury trial attaches. Id. at 707.

The facts provided in this case are quite scant: the defendant was convicted after a trial by judge of domestic violence, a misdemeanor offense. Id. at 701. He was charged under Section 21-5414(b)(1), which carries a maximum sentence of six months. Id. at 703. The defendant could also be subject to a fine and undergo a violent offender assessment, or choose to impose a two-year probation in lieu of any jail time. Id. He was never told that he was entitled, via statute, to a jury trial no matter whether the charge was considered a serious or petty misdemeanor. Id. at 706. Because the defendant was unaware of the statutory option to a jury trial, he made no such request before the trial by the court. Id. After the bench trial, the defendant was convicted, though it is unclear what sentence he received. Id. at 701.

The court begins by noting that the two types of offenses—serious and petty—are not directly reflective of how egregious the underlying crime was, but focus more on the potential sentences available. Id. However, the “boundaries of the petty offense category have always been ill-defined.” Id. One bright-line is whether the “authorized penalty is more than six months.” Id. If the penalty is greater than six months, the offense will always be considered serious and carry with it a constitutional right to a trial by jury. Id. This bright-line did not decide this case, however, because the maximum sentence for this particular crime was exactly six months, thus that fact alone does not make the offense serious. Id. at 702.

The court next examined other factors that may make an offense carrying a shorter offense “serious.” Id. Notably, in some instances, there may be “statutory penalties in addition to the jail term that are so severe that they clearly reflect a legislative determination that the offense is a ‘serious’ one.” Id. However, what exactly would constitute sufficiently severe penalties is unclear, as the United States Supreme Court has never found such a statute to make an offense “serious” because of additional, non-incarceration penalties alone. Id. Instead, decisions had found fines of up to $1000, loss of a driver’s license, mandatory education courses, and even five-year probation terms in place of six month or less sentence all to be insufficient statutory penalties. Id. These additional (or alternative) penalties were all found to be “far less intrusive than incarceration” and thus, “do not make the offense a serious one for jury-trial purposes.” Id. The court found no additional penalties at issue in this case, and thus, found the offense to be properly considered a petty offense to which no jury trial right exists. Id. at 704.

The court made very quick work of the defendant’s final argument. Id at 706. This argument dealt with the statutory right to a jury trial, only upon request, for any misdemeanor offense to which the Sixth Amendment’s right to jury trial does not attach. Id. However, the defendant did not timely request a jury trial and he had no right to be informed of the statute. Id. Knowing waiver applies to the Constitutional right, not to the statutory right. Id.

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