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An Untenable Choice: Civil Liberties v. State Budget

image courtesy of jerseymike.org

Currently, there is a bill in Arizona that could compromise your constitutionally-protected civil liberties in regards to DUI procedures and punishments in favor of preserving the state budget. It has just recently gone into effect a few days ago on December 31, 2011, and takes away the right to a jury trial for first-time offenders charged with non-extreme DUIs. Let me explain the history behind your right to a jury trial, and why preserving these rights is so important.

The Bill of Rights was written to protect certain essential rights of citizens. The 5th Amendment states,” No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Simply put, due process of law is the requirement that all legal proceedings be fair and just. The 7th Amendment states that any person accused of a criminal offense is entitled to a speedy and public trial by jury, in addition to being confronted by witnesses against them, obtaining favorable witnesses, and having an attorney to assist in their defense. Furthermore, the 6th Amendment contains a clause requiring the right to trial by jury. This right to a jury trial is important way to check government power by allowing one’s peers to review the facts of the case as presented by both sides, and reasonably draw their own conclusions. Jurors have a special privilege that gives them the power to decide a case either in accordance with the law or against it, if they find the current law to be inappropriate or unjust. Removing or abridging this right is inappropriate and may not be in the best interest of justice. Further, DUI offenses are criminal offenses, and by the 7th Amendment, defendants accused of a criminal offense are entitled to a trial by jury. According to the Constitution, there should be no state-written discretion on when and where the right to jury trial should and should not be awarded; it is a guaranteed right to anyone charged with a criminal offense. Furthermore, and obviously, each case is different; dealing with a unique set of facts. Considering this, it would not be appropriate for the state or courts to give certain DUI cases different procedural treatment merely based on the alleged charges and before any facts or information are established. This actually seems to contradict the “innocent until proven guilty” mantra that the justice system is built upon.

Proponents of SB 1200, headed by the bill’s sponsor Linda Gray, have touted the bill as a way to cut certain legal costs from the state’s budget that she and others believe are unnecessary. In an interview after the bill was signed, she stated,”[T]he public defender is there interviewing each one of the jurors. Sometimes that takes all day,” Gray said. In the case of public defenders, “the taxpayers have to pay for that.”2 There is no doubt that court proceedings cost money and do take time, but these are fundamental rights that we are entitled to, and these rights should demand protection at all costs. Jury selection does take up time, and public defenders are paid, but all of these things are in the best interest of the taxpayer. Removing them to save money has catastrophic implications, and is a completely unacceptable breach of Constitutional rights. Clearly illustrating Ms. Gray’s attitude towards the right is her statement from last April: “The only reason you need a jury trial is if you’re going to jail.”2

The removal of this right to jury trial in first-time, non-extreme DUI cases happened at the last minute before SB 1200 was signed. Unfortunately, this was done too quickly and late to be subject to public review or debate. This bill contains serious Constitutional issues that should have been given ample time for discussion. This last minute addition flew too low under the radar to get most people’s attention, but there is no doubt that the battle against it is just beginning. Phoenix defense attorney Cliff Girard led an opposing petition to place the bill on a ballot in June 2011, but not enough signatures were gathered. James Nesci, a Tucson defense lawyer has rightly declared, “You can’t legislate away constitutional rights.”2 This is the standpoint of several opponents of the bill, who foresee definite litigation and future debate over this decision in the near future. Michael Bloom, a Tucson defense attorney, declared “It’s shocking to attempt to save money by crippling our legal system.”2 The battle over these rights is expected to continue well into the New Year, with changes to come. For further information, here is a LINK to the full text of the bill.

1 http://azstarnet.com/news/local/crime/article_428ecd3f-cb81-58ee-86fc-5f48942bb157.html#ixzz1hmCR1n1X
2 http://azcapitoltimes.com/news/2011/04/22/bill-would-limit-right-to-jury-trial/
http://e-lobbyist.com/gaits/text/243328
http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/opinions/articles/2011/05/08/20110508sun1-08-new-duit-law.html

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