A bill approved by the Arizona Legislature would end the flat right that misdemeanor DUI defendants now have under state law to a jury trial for a first offense.
The legislator who sponsored the bill called the jury change reasonable because other changes in the bill ease potential penalties for first-time DUI offenders, while a defense attorney called the jury change an "appalling" loss of a protection for defendants.
With the change, a judge would decide whether to grant a request for a jury trial. The alternative is for a judge to hear the case. People charged with repeat offenses still would have a right to a jury trial.
The jury trial change was inserted in a 50-page bill dealing with DUI laws.
The change was among many made without any substantial explanation during a House floor session on April 14. Republican Rep. Vic Williams of Tucson, the lawmaker who offered the amendment with the jury change and numerous others, said only that it "makes the bill much better."
The House formally approved the bill on Monday, and the Senate followed suit on Tuesday afternoon. The Legislature adjourned its session early Wednesday morning, and the bill is now among 168 measures awaiting action by Gov. Jan Brewer by May 2.
As approved, the bill also shortens how long first-time offenders have to use ignition interlock devices and gives judges new discretion on sentencing.
The current requirement that first-time offenders spend 24 consecutive hours in jail would change to "one day," which would permit a judge to sentence an offender to the time he or she already spent in jail during booking immediately after arrests, said the bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Linda Gray of Glendale.
"The only reason you need a jury trial is if you're going to jail," Gray said Friday.
However, she acknowledged that DUI offenders still face "heavy consequences" that include fines and fees that add up to thousands of dollars, not counting the cost of installing an ignition interlock device.
Gray said lawmakers had several days to review the final version of the bill before voting on it and that lawmakers were empowered to make the change because the jury trial right for first-offense misdemeanor DUI is provided by state law, not the Arizona Constitution.
Attorney Steven Sherick, a Tucson DUI lawyer who is immediate past president of a statewide association of criminal defense attorneys, said he was "shocked and appalled" by the jury trial change.
A jury trial is an important protection for defendants because juries often explore cases from a fresher vantage point than a judge who has heard many cases with similar circumstances, Sherick said.
Also, the defense can weed out potential jurors who are biased but there's no such exploration with judges, he said. "With a judge, there's a presumption that the judge can be fair."
Sherick said reducing the number of jury trials could save time for judges but that he was unaware of any lobbying by them on the change.
However, Gray said impetus for the jury trial change came from justices of the peace during negotiations on the bill as it evolved at the Legislature.
She referred a reporter to Lester Pearce, a Maricopa County justice of the peace for north Mesa. Pearce did not immediate respond to requests for comment.
Greenlee County Attorney Derick Rapier, chairman of a statewide group representing prosecutors, said the group did not lobby for the jury trial change, which he said would affect numerous cases.
He said the change would make misdemeanor cases easier to process and provide the criminal justice system with cost savings but not necessarily result in more convictions.