If you are charged with a crime in the state of New York, your case probably will not “go to trial.” If your criminal defense attorney is not able to have the charge against you dropped or dismissed, your case will probably be resolved with a plea bargain, and you’ll be convicted of a lesser charge.

That’s how the overwhelming majority of criminal cases are resolved in the state of New York. Criminal trials, in fact, are rare. But what if you are innocent, and you do not believe that you should accept a plea bargain – or any other responsibility – for a crime that you did not commit?

You have the right to insist on a trial if you are charged with a crime in the state of New York, but is it better to have a jury trial or a “bench” trial where the judge also acts as the jury?

WHAT GUARANTEES A CRIMINAL DEFENDANT’S RIGHT TO A FAIR TRIAL?

If you are charged with a crime in New York – any crime – you have the right to a fair and impartial trial. That right is guaranteed by the United States Constitution as well as the Constitution of the State of New York.

handcuffs and books

If your case goes to trial, it’s the job of the state to prove your guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and it’s the job of your criminal defense lawyer to cast doubt on the state’s case – enough doubt to prevent the state from being able to convict you.

New York allows defendants who are charged with misdemeanor offenses to have a jury trial heard by six jurors. If the charge is a felony, the defendant is entitled to a jury trial heard by twelve jurors.

HOW ARE JURY TRIALS CONDUCTED IN NEW YORK?

Whether the charge against a defendant is a misdemeanor charge or a felony charge, a criminal conviction in New York requires the jurors to vote unanimously for a guilty verdict. You cannot be convicted of a crime unless a prosecutor can persuade all of the jurors that you are guilty.

The right to a jury trial is a fundamental right of defendants in our criminal justice system, but a defendant may also waive his or her right to a trial by jury. After consulting an attorney, a defendant may choose to enter a guilty plea, accept a plea bargain, or ask for a “bench trial.”

gavel and books

In most ways, a bench trial is like any criminal trial, except that the judge not only presides over the case but also considers the evidence and determines innocence or guilt. As a rule of thumb, because no jury has to be selected or considered, bench trials don’t last as long as jury trials.

WHEN IS A BENCH TRIAL AUTOMATIC?

In some of the cases in New York’s courts – non-criminal cases that deal with “violations” rather than criminal offenses – there is no right to a jury trial, and a bench trial is automatic if the case can’t be resolved with a dismissal of the charge, a guilty (or “no contest”) plea, or a plea bargain.

In New York misdemeanor and felony cases, a defendant who waives the right to a trial by jury and chooses a bench trial must waive the right in court, on the record, and only when a judge is convinced that the right is being waived voluntarily and with no undue pressure.

Aside from reducing the length of a trial, does a defendant gain any meaningful legal advantages by choosing a bench trial over a jury trial? Like so much in criminal law, the best answer is, “It depends.”

WHEN IS A BENCH TRIAL PREFERABLE TO A TRIAL BY JURY?

In cases that can trigger strong emotions – for example, if someone is prosecuted for sexually molesting a child – a defendant may prefer an experienced judge who routinely hears such cases over a panel of jurors who might be emotionally manipulated by a zealous prosecutor.

Another instance when a bench trial may be preferable is in a case that involves complex technical or scientific matters. A defendant might do better in such a case with a judge who will give the case his or her complete attention and then render a verdict based strictly on the facts.

If you are charged with any crime in Westchester County or anywhere in the New York City area, it’s imperative to speak as quickly as possible to an accomplished Westchester County criminal defense attorney. Do not wait. Contact a defense lawyer at once.

IF YOU ARE ARRESTED, WHAT SHOULD YOU SAY TO THE POLICE?

When you are placed under arrest in the state of New York – on any criminal charge – follow these recommendations:

  • Be pleasant, non-threatening, and generally cooperative, but do not consent to a search of your person, vehicle, or residence.
  • At a traffic stop, the police have the right to ask for your driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. Be polite, but do not provide any other information. Just say, “Officer, I would prefer to exercise my right to remain silent.”
  • The same rule applies for any interrogation after an arrest. Simply say, “I would prefer to have my lawyer present before answering any questions.”

lawyers fighting for your rights

In criminal cases, your lawyer will review the details of the charge and examine any evidence the state has compiled against you. If there’s a weakness in the evidence or a flaw in the state’s case, your attorney will exploit that weakness or flaw to cast doubt on the charge against you.

HOW ELSE WILL A CRIMINAL DEFENSE LAW FIRM HELP A DEFENDANT?

In a typical criminal case, your attorney’s first step will be trying to have the charge dropped or dismissed. If that’s not possible, it’s best to follow your attorney’s advice. He or she may recommend accepting a plea bargain, requesting a jury trial, or going with a bench trial.

criminal lawyers

Feel free to ask your lawyer a lot of questions and to have all of your concerns addressed. In the end, the decisions about how to handle your criminal case are yours alone, but an experienced Westchester County criminal defense attorney will provide invaluable help and advice.

A criminal defendant in New York has the right to a good attorney’s help. If you’ve been arrested, your future – and even your freedom – are in the balance, so you must make the call and get that legal help as quickly as possible.

By: Kimberly Pelesz

Family law and criminal defense attorney Kimberly A. Pelesz received a B.S. degree magna cum laude and an M.P.A. degree summa cum laude from Binghamton University. She earned her J.D. from Pace University School of Law in White Plains, where she was selected for Phi Alpha Delta. Her charitable activities include work with My Sisters’ Place in White Plains and the Westchester County District Attorney’s Humane Education Taskforce.

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