Baldwin v. New York

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation90 S.Ct. 1886,26 L.Ed.2d 437,399 U.S. 66
Docket NumberNo. 188,188
PartiesRobert BALDWIN, Appellant, v. State of NEW YORK
Decision Date22 June 1970

William E. Hellerstein, New York City, for appellant.

Michael R. Juviler, New York City, for appellee.

Mr. Justice WHITE announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion in which Mr. Justice BRANNAN and Mr. Justice MARSHALL join.

Appellant was arrested and charged with 'jostling'—a Class A misdemeanor in New York, punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of one year.1 He was brought to trial in the New York City Criminal Court. Section 40 of the New York City Criminal Court Act declares that all trials in that court shall be without a jury.2 Appellant's pretrial motion for jury trial was accordingly denied. He was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for the maximum term. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, rejecting appellant's argument that § 40 was unconstitutional insofar as it denied him an opportunity for jury trial.3 We noted probable jurisdiction.4 We reverse.

In Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 88 S.Ct. 1444, 20 L.Ed.2d 491 (1968), we held that the Sixth Amendment, as applied to the States through the Fourteenth, requires that defendants accused of serious crimes be afforded the right to trial by jury. We also reaffirmed the long-established view that so-called 'petty offenses' may be tried without a jury.5 Thus the tesk before us in this case is the essential if not wholly satisfactory one, see Duncan, at 161, 88 S.Ct. at 1453, of determining the line between 'petty' and 'serious' for purposes of the Sixth Amendment right to jury trial.

Prior cases in this Court narrow our inquiry and furnish us with the standard to be used in resolving this issue. In deciding whether an offense is 'petty,' we have sought objective criteria reflecting the seriousness with which society regards the offense, District of Columbia v. Clawans, 300 U.S. 617, 628, 57 S.Ct. 660, 663, 81 L.Ed. 843 (1937), and we have found the most relevant such criteria in the severity of the maximum authorized penalty. Frank v. United States, 395 U.S. 147, 148, 89 S.Ct. 1503, 1505, 23 L.Ed.2d 162 (1969); Duncan v. Louisiana, supra, 391 U.S., at 159 161, 88 S.Ct., at 1452—1454; District of Columbia v. Clawans, supra, 300 U.S., at 628, 57 S.Ct., at 663. Applying these guidelines, we have held that a possible six-month penalty is short enough to permit classification of the offense as 'petty,' Dyke v. Taylor Implement Mfg. Co., 391 U.S. 216, 220, 88 S.Ct. 1472, 1475, 20 L.Ed.2d 538 (1968); Cheff v. Schnackenberg, 384 U.S. 373, 86 S.Ct. 1523, 16 L.Ed.2d 629 (1966), but that a two-year maximum is sufficiently 'serious' to require an opportunity for jury trial, Duncan v. Louisiana, supra. The question in this case is whether the possibility of a one-year sentence is enough in itself to require the opportunity for a jury trial. We hold that it is. More specifically, we have concluded that no offense can be deemed 'petty' for purposes of the right to trial by jury where imprisonment for more than six months is authorized.6

New York has urged us to draw the line between 'petty' and 'serious' to coincide with the line between misdemeanor and felony. As in most States, the maximum sentence of imprisonment for a misdemeanor in New York is one year, for a felony considerably longer.7 It is also true that the collateral consequences attaching to a felony conviction are more severe than those attaching to a conviction for a misdemeanor.8 And, like other States, New York distinguishes between misdemeanors and felonies in determining such things as whether confinement shall be in county or regional jails, rather than state prison,9 and whether prosecution may proceed by information or complaint, rather than by grand jury indictment.10 But while these considerations reflect what may readily be admitted—that a felony conviction is more serious than a misdemeanor conviction—they in no way detract from appellant's contention that some misdemeanors are also 'serious' offenses. Indeed we long ago declared that the Sixth Amendment right to jury trial 'is not to be construed as relating only to felonies, or offences punishable by confinement in the penitentiary. It embraces as well some classes of misdemeanors, the punishment of which involves or may involve the deprivation of the liberty of the citizen.' Callan v. Wilson, 127 U.S. 540, 549, 8 S.Ct. 1301, 1303, 32 L.Ed. 223 (1888).11

A better guide '(i)n determining whether the length of the authorized prison term or the seriousness of other punishment is enough in itself to require a jury trial' is disclosed by 'the existing laws and practices in the Nation.' Duncan v. Louisiana, supra, 391 U.S. at 161, 88 S.Ct. at 1453. In the federal system, as we noted in Duncan, petty offenses have been defined as those punishable by no more than six months in prison and a $500 fine.12 And, with a few exceptions, crimes triable without a jury in the American States since the late 18th century were also generally punishable by no more than a six-month prison term.13 Indeed, when Duncan was decided two Terms ago, we could discover only three instances in which a State denied jury trial for a crime punishable by imprisonment for longer than six months: the Louisiana scheme at issue in Duncan, a New Jersey statute punishing disorderly conduct, and the New York City statute at issue in this case.14 These three instances have since been reduced to one. In response to the decision in Duncan, Louisiana has lowered the penalty for certain misdemeanors to six months, and has provided for a jury trial where the penalty still exceeds six months.15 New Jersey has amended its disorderly persons statute by reducing the maximum penalty to six months' imprisonment and a $500 fine. 16 Even New York State would have provided appellant with a six-man-jury trial for this offense if he had been tried outside the City of New York.17 In the entire Nation, New York City alone denies an accused the right to interpose between himself and a possible prison term of over six months, the commonsense judgment of a jury of his peers.18

It is true that in a number of these States the jury provided consists of less than the 12-man, unanimous-verdict jury available in federal cases.19 But the primary purpose of the jury is to prevent the possibility of oppression by the Government; the jury interposes between the accused and his accuser the judgment of laymen who are less tutored perhaps than a judge or panel of judges, but who at the same time are less likely to function or appear as but another arm of the Government that has proceeded against him.20 Except for the criminal courts of New York City, every other court in the Nation proceeds under jury trial provisions that reflect this 'fundamental decision about the exercise of official power,' Duncan v. Louisiana, supra, 391 U.S., at 156, 88 S.Ct., at 1451, when what is at stake is the deprivation of individual liberty for a period exceeding six months. This near-uniform judgment of the Nation furnishes us with the only objective criterion by which a line could ever be drawn on the basis of the possible penalty alone—between offenses that are and that are not regarded as 'serious' for purposes of trial by jury.21

Of necessity, the task of drawing a line 'requires attaching different consequences to events which, when they lie near the line, actually differ very little.' Duncan v. Louisiana, supra, at 161, 88 S.Ct., at 1453. One who is threatened with the possibility of imprisonment for six months may find little difference between the potential consequences that face him, and the consequences that faced appellant here. Indeed, the prospect of imprisonment for however short a time will seldom be viewed by the accused as a trivial or 'petty' matter and may well result in quite serious repercussions affecting his career and his reputation. Where the accused cannot possibly face more than six months' imprisonment, we have held that these disadvantages, onerous though they may be, may be outweighed by the benefits that result from speedy and inexpensive nonjury adjudications. We cannot, however, conclude that these administrative conveniences, in light of the practices that now exist in every one of the 50 States as well as in the federal courts, can sim- ilarly justify denying an accused the important right to trial by jury where the possible penalty exceeds six months' imprisonment.22 The conviction is


Mr. Justice BLACKMUN took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Mr. Justice BLACK, with whom Mr. Justice DOUGLAS joins, concurring in the judgment.

I agree that the appellant here was entitled to a trial by jury in a New York City court for an offense punishable by one year's imprisonment. I also agree that his right to a trial by jury was governed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment. I disagree, however, with the view that a defendant's right to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment is determined by whether the offense charged is a 'petty' or 'serious' one. The Constitution guarantees a right of trial by jury in two separate places but in neither does it hint of any difference between 'petty' offenses and 'serious' offenses. Article III, § 2, cl. 3, provides that '(t)he Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury,' and Amendment VI provides that '(i)n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed * * *.' Thus the Constitution itself guarantees a jury trial '(i)n all criminal prosecutions' and for 'all crimes.' Many years ago this Court, without the necessity of an amendment pursuant to Article V, decided that 'all crimes' did not mean 'all crimes,'...

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