Update on Jury Trial Waivers

In 2014, North Carolina’s voters approved an amendment to the state constitution. The amendment enabled a criminal defendant charged with a crime in superior court to waive his or her right to a jury trial, and instead have his or her guilt or innocence determined by a judge. I wrote a report about the amendment before it was adopted; I wrote about some of the procedural questions raised by the amendment after it passed; and I wrote about 2015 legislation that changed or clarified the waiver procedures. Now we have an appellate case that addresses two issues pertinent to jury trial waivers, so I thought I’d write about that.

Background. G.S. 15A-1201 sets forth the procedure for jury trial waivers. Simplifying a bit, the current version of the statute allows a noncapital criminal defendant to waive his or her right to a jury trial in superior court in any of three ways: (1) at any time, by stipulated agreement with the State; (2) within 10 working days after arraignment or an administrative setting, whichever comes first, by executing a written waiver; or (3) at arraignment or an administrative setting, whichever comes first, by entering an oral waiver on the record. A judge ultimately decides whether to accept the waiver and to hear the case without a jury.

State v. Jones. The court of appeals recently decided State v. Jones, a case in which a bench trial was held. Although the case arose before the timing rules summarized above were added to G.S. 15A-1201, it nonetheless addresses two points of interest regarding waivers.

The case arose in December 2009. Officers suspected that the defendant had downloaded child pornography. They executed a search warrant at the defendant’s parents’ house and found child pornography on the defendant’s computer. The defendant admitted that he had downloaded the images in question, and was charged with second-degree sexual exploitation of a minor.

The defendant was indicted on those charges in July 2010. In March 2011, a judge heard, and granted, the defendant’s motion to suppress his statements on the ground that they were involuntary. In May 2015, the case was called for trial before the same judge. The defendant waived his right to a jury trial and the judge agreed to conduct a bench trial. The judge convicted the defendant and sentenced him to probation. The defendant appealed.

Issue one: what’s an arraignment? The defendant’s first argument was that “he should have been arraigned shortly after he was indicted” in July 2010, and that the amendment took effect on December 1, 2014, for “criminal cases arraigned in superior court on or after that date.” Therefore, according to the defendant, “the trial court lacked the authority to grant his request for a waiver of his right to a trial by jury.”

The court of appeals rejected this argument because its first premise was faulty: there was no need to arraign the defendant in 2010 because he did not request an arraignment at that time. The court noted that a defendant is entitled to a formal arraignment only if the defendant timely requests one. G.S. 15A-941 (stating that “[a] defendant will be arraigned in accordance with this section only if the defendant files a written request” within 21 days of indictment or service thereof). The defendant in Jones didn’t request an arraignment. However, he was ultimately arraigned informally on the date that his trial began, when the prosecutor recited the charges on the record and asked for the defendant’s plea. Because that arraignment took place in May 2015, well after the effective date of the amendment, the court of appeals ruled that the trial court had the authority to accept the waiver.

My understanding is that it is unusual for a defendant to request a formal arraignment, but it is common for a brief, informal arraignment to take place at the beginning of a trial. Under Jones, such brief arraignments count as arraignments for purposes of G.S. 15A-1201. Under the current version of the statute, does that mean that a defendant may wait until such an arraignment to ask for a bench trial? Normally that won’t work, because virtually all felony cases that reach trial have been through at least one administrative setting, and the administrative setting will trigger the timing rules noted above.

Issue two: may the same judge hear a motion to suppress and preside over the trial? I’ve been asked this question several times, and generally have said that I thought the same judge could properly play both roles, just as district court judges regularly do. Proving that even a blind squirrel finds an occasional nut, the court of appeals so held.

The defendant contended that the trial judge should not have heard the case, because “he was necessarily aware of Defendant’s involuntary confession to downloading the images at issue” as a result of having heard the motion to suppress. The defendant contended that this impaired his “ability to serve as a fair and impartial factfinder.” The court of appeals noted that the defendant hadn’t raised the issue below. More importantly, it stated that “trial judges are presumed to ignore inadmissible evidence when they serve as the finder of fact in a bench trial.” The defendant offered nothing to rebut this presumption.

2 thoughts on “Update on Jury Trial Waivers”

  1. Although I have not directly addressed the issue, my understanding in WA State (where I practiced for nine years) courts acknowledge the State’s right to a jury trial also, meaning that a defendant can’t waive to a bench trial when the state objects. I would guess, and it may be obvious, that is not the case in Maryland given the outcomes of the bench trials in the Freddie Gray murder cases, and wonder if that is an issue addressed in NC law?


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