Certain types of cases such as breath test per se alcohol cases usually are best heard by a jury. In other types of cases, such as a case with a sympathetic defendant, a skilled lawyer can sway a jury better than they might be able to sway a judge. At other times the opposite may be true. In making its decision, a jury can vote “guilty” or “not guilty” on the charges based on a multitude of issues regardless of how the judge words the “instructions” on the law that they must apply to the case.
A criminal defense lawyer with strong persuasive skills can often sway a jury to vote “not guilty.”
Advantages and Disadvantages
One place that you may lose an edge if you opt for a bench trial is if a potential appeal is needed. Appellate courts are more likely to uphold the judge’s determination of guilt absent some blatant error in the judge’s rulings on the admissibility of evidence.
Because bench trials are often shorter in duration than are jury trials, they are cheaper if you are paying your lawyer by the hour. Some “flat fee” attorneys also charge less for bench trials in their fee agreements. As noted above, it is often quicker to get a bench trial than to wait for an opening for a jury trial. As mentioned before, some state legislatures have set up the court system to provide for entry-level courts to be non-jury, with an option to move the case to a jury trial court later. In such entry-level courts, your request for a jury trial necessitates a transfer to a court that can impanel a jury to hear your case.
A bench trial is a better option if the key to winning your trial rests upon a “legal” issue being decided in your favor. For example, if all pre-trial issues (that would typically be heard by the judge before a jury is ever impaneled) are heard as part of a bench trial, then a favorable ruling on the mid-trial motion to suppress for an illegal stop will win the entire case, and the prosecutor cannot appeal the judge’s decision.
Burden of Proof
The “burden of proof” in a DUI bench trial is the same as in a jury trial. “Burden of proof” refers to who has the requirement to prove something. As to criminal charges, the burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove that you are guilty of driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden never “shifts” to you to prove your innocence.
Once a defendant has claimed an affirmative defense, like justification or entrapment, in some jurisdictions the burden to prove that this DUI defense lacks a basis is on the prosecution. In other states, the party asserting the affirmative defense must “come forward” with his or her proof. Then, the prosecutor can seek to disprove the defense.