Baker v. City of Fairbanks, 1141

CourtSupreme Court of Alaska (US)
Citation471 P.2d 386
Docket NumberNo. 1141,1141
PartiesProctor J. BAKER, Petitioner, v. CITY OF FAIRBANKS, Alaska, Respondent.
Decision Date05 June 1970

Lloyd I. Hoppner, of Rice & Hoppner, Fairbanks, for petitioner.

Howard Staley and Stephen S. DeLisio of Merdes, Schaible, Staley & DeLisio, Fairbanks, for respondent.


CONNOR, Justice.

This case raises important questions about the right to jury trial for certain city ordinance violations. This necessarily means that we must reconsider the rationale of the opinion in Knudsen v. City of Anchorage, 358 P.2d 375 (Alaska 1960), which held that a person charged with a violation of a city ordinance prohibiting reckless driving was not entitled to a jury trial. Since Knudsen was decided, the United States Supreme Court in Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 88 S.Ct. 1444, 20 L.Ed.2d 491 (1968), has made applicable to the states, through the Fourteenth Amendment due process clause, the Sixth Amendment right to jury trial in criminal cases other than those traditionally labeled 'petty offenses.' It is with the implications of the Duncan decision and the Sixth Amendment right to jury trial that we must deal in the present decision.

In the case before us petitioner was charged in the District Court at Fairbanks, Alaska, with violating a City of Fairbanks ordinance, in that he did 'assault Bradley W. Hollister by throwing him into the wall and refrigerator' contrary to Fairbanks City Code, Section 6.101(b). 1

Petitioner asserted in the courts below that he was entitled to a jury trial. His claim was denied. He then filed a petition for review with this court. We have granted review of this case because of the importance of the question which is raised by petitioner. 2

Petitioner argues that under Duncan v. Louisiana, supra, he is entitled to a jury trial as a matter of right, and that the specific holding of Duncan is dispositive of his case.

In Duncan the Court held that one charged with assault and battery under Louisiana law, which offense carried a maximum possible penalty of two years' imprisonment, or a $300 fine, or both, must be afforded a jury trial. Louisiana had contended that assault and battery traditionally was recognized to be a 'petty offense,' and that there was, therefore, no constitutional requirement that it must be tried by a jury. The offense, despite the somewhat long possible period of imprisonment was classified as a misdemeanor under Louisiana law. It was also contended that the granting of a jury trial was a matter for state determination and not a part of federal due process of law.

In rejecting Louisiana's claims, the Court in Duncan determined that the right to jury trial, as expressed in the Sixth Amendment, must be made applicable to the states of the Union as part of the due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Mr. Justice White, speaking for the Court, stated:

'Because we believe that trial by jury in criminal cases is fundamental to the American scheme of justice, we hold that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees a right of jury trial in all criminal cases which-were they to be tried in a federal court-would come within the Sixth Amendment's guarantee.' 391 U.S. at 149, 88 S.Ct. at 1447 (footnote omitted).

In declaring the right to jury trial to be a fundamental right comprehended under the federal notion of due process of law, the Court abandoned an older group of cases which had implied that jury trial might not be necessary to satisfy the guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court in Duncan recognized that there is within the Sixth Amendment an area where the trial by jury of certain offenses is not constitutionally required. This implied exception has been read into the Sixth Amendment by the courts over a period of many years, despite the express language of the amendment.

A literal reading of the Sixth Amendment would tell the reader that, as a matter of plain English, all offenses which can be regarded as criminal must be tried by jury if the defendant demands such a trial. 3 Despite this apparently plain language, some courts have adhered to the position that, because certain offenses were not triable by jury at the time our Republic was founded, the framers of our federal constitution did not mean to include such offenses as being triable by jury under the guarantees of the Sixth Amendment and similar state guarantees of jury trial. This position was reaffirmed in the Duncan case, with certain important qualifications.

In elaborating upon what this Sixth Amendment guarantee includes, Mr. Justice White explained:

'Of each of these determinations that a constitutional provision orginally written to bind the Federal Government should bind the States as well it might be said that the limitation in question is not necessarily fundamental to fairness in every criminal system that might be imagined but is fundamental in the context of criminal processes maintained by the American States.

'When the inquiry is approached in this way the question whether the States can impose criminal punishment without granting a jury trial appears quite different from the way it appeared in the older cases opinion that States might abolish jury trial. See, e. g., Maxwell v. Dow, 176 U.S. 581, 20 S.Ct. 448, 44 L.Ed. 597 (1900). A criminal process which was fair and equitable but used no juries is easy to imagine. It would make use of alternative guarantees and protections which would serve the purposes that the jury serves in the English and American systems. Yet no American State has undertaken to construct such a system. Instead, every American State, including Louisiana, uses the jury extensively, and imposes very serious punishments only after a trial at which the defendant has a right to a jury's verdict. In every State, including Louisiana, the structure and style of the criminal process-the supporting framework and the subsidiary procedures-are of the sort that naturally complement jury trial, and have developed in connection with and in reliance upon jury trial.' 391 U.S. at 149-150, 88 S.Ct. at 1448, n. 14.

In other words, the Court stressed the importance of providing procedures which are fundamentally fair within the context of our present-day American system of criminal justice.

In Duncan the Court held that a jury trial was required for the offense of assault and battery, even though that offense, considered by its label alone, did not historically come within the concept of a 'serious misdemeanor.' From the language used by the Court, it appears that the maximum possible sentence was the influential factor in determining that assault and battery, at least in Louisiana, was not a petty offense, despite the nomenclature attached by the State. As the Court explained:

'It is doubtless true that there is a category of petty crimes or offenses which is not subject to the Sixth Amendment jury trial provision and should not be subject to the Fourteenth Amendment jury trial requirement here applied to the States. Crimes carrying possible penalties up to six months do not require a jury trial if they otherwise qualify as petty offenses. But the penalty authorized for a particular crime is of major relevance in determining whether it is serious or not and may in itself, if severe enough, subject the trial to the mandates of the Sixth Amendment. The penalty authorized by the law of the locality may be taken 'as a gauge of its social and ethical judgment' of the crime in question.' 391 U.S. at 159-160, 88 S.Ct. at 1453 (footnotes and citations omitted).

The Court noted that in the federal system Congress has denied petty offenses as those punishable by no more than six months in prison and a $500 fine. Additionally, it noted that in 49 of the 50 states, crimes which are subject to trial without a jury, which sometime include simple assault and battery, are punishable by no more than one year in jail. Further, the vast catalogue of crimes which were triable without a jury in 18th Century America, that is, before the framing of the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the various state constitutions, were, with rare exceptions, punishable by no more than a six-month period of incarceration. Most importantly, the Court in Duncan did not adopt a mechanical test for distinguishing between petty offenses and serious misdemeanors.

'We need not, however, settle in this case the exact location of the line between petty offenses and serious crimes. It is sufficient for our purposes to hold that a crime punishable by two years in prison is, based on past and contemporary standards in this country, a serious crime and not a petty offense.' 391 U.S. at 161-162, 88 S.Ct. at 1454.

Traditionally two main approaches have been used by the courts in determining whether a crime was petty or serious. The first approach looks to the maximum possible punishment-not the punishment actually imposed by the court-as a gauge of the sentiments of the locality or of the lawmakers in determining whether, because of the severity of the punishment, the offense should be regarded as serious in itself. Duncan v. Louisiana, supra.

The second approach is to look to the nature of the offense, consider its common law background, if any, consider whether it carries sufficient opprobrium to require its being labeled a 'serious' misdemeanor and consider also the cosequences of conviction of such an offense.

'The truth is, the nature of the offense, and the amount of punishment prescribed, rather than its place in the statutes, determine whether it is to be classed among serious or petty offenses,-whether among crimes or misdemeanors.' Schick v. United States, 195 U.S. 65, 68, 24 S.Ct. 826, 827 (1904).

Upon an evaluation of all these factors together hinges the determination of whether the offense is serious enough to require jury trial. It is important to note that under this...

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