New York high court rules that criminal defendants facing threat of deportation are entitled to a jury trial, but many others are deprived of juries
On Tuesday, New York’s highest court ruled that certain noncitizen defendants facing misdemeanor charges normally only triable before a judge are entitled to jury trials. This is because the risk of deportation is a severe enough penalty that a defendant should have the option to be judged by a jury. The decision came in the 2012 case of Saylor Suazo who faced misdemeanor domestic violence charges. Before trial, Suazo argued that although the sentence was below New York City’s six-month threshold for a jury trial, the penalty of deportation, which he almost certainly faced if convicted, was severe enough to warrant a jury as required for “serious” offenses under the Sixth Amendment. The prosecution argued that the deportation was a collateral consequence of the conviction, not a penalty, and therefore he was not entitled to a jury trial. The judge agreed and Suazo was convicted. But New York’s Court of Appeals ruled in his favor: “There can be no serious dispute that, if deemed a penalty for Sixth Amendment purposes, deportation or removal is a penalty of the utmost severity” adding that deportation “is frequently more injurious to noncitizen defendants than six months or less of imprisonment.” [Beth Fertig / WNYC]
In his dissent, Judge Michael Garcia wrote that this ruling would open the door “to further litigation, in both state and federal courts, over exactly which collateral consequences may make an otherwise ‘petty’ offense ‘serious.’” Garcia noted that “the penalty for violation of United States immigration laws includes deportation, and deportation proceedings have never been deemed to entitle a noncitizen to anything more than an administrative hearing – certainly not a jury trial.” He added that under the majority’s ruling, “deportation proceedings themselves” should take place in federal courts, “with the full panoply of constitutional rights” they entail, not executive branch hearings. “Put differently, if the severity of deportation entitles one to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment, the entire federal system of removal of undocumented aliens is unconstitutional.” [People v. Suazo, dissent]
It is not a bad point, and one that many immigration advocates might agree with. In the U.S., the idea of being judged by a jury of your peers is thought to be sacred, but in reality, many people facing severe penalties do not receive a jury. This includes people in deportation proceedings and young people tried as juveniles in family court. In the Bronx and elsewhere, as in Suazo’s case, prosecutors routinely drop charges just below the threshold of severity that would require a jury trial. The idea is that, particularly in overpoliced areas, jurors will be more likely to take seriously the very real possibility that a police officer would be less than truthful (see yesterday’s edition of the Daily Appeal, about the police cover-up that surrounded the shooting death of Laquan McDonald in Chicago). Judges, integral parts of the system and often former prosecutors themselves, are often less likely to doubt the credibility of officer testimony.
And even when people do receive a jury trial, they are often deprived of a jury of their peers. Prosecutors regularly seek to strike people of color from juries, leaving Black and brown defendants to be judged by all-white juries. The Batson rule, which outlaws race-based jury strikes, is famously toothless: As long as prosecutors can come up with an acceptable reason to strike a person, they can generally get away with keeping their juries relatively homogenous. And in death penalty cases, the process is especially skewed: the practice of death certification, by which people are only allowed to serve on death penalty juries after affirming that they do not oppose the death penalty, means that people accused of the most serious crimes are given juries that are, in some ways, cherry picked for their punitive beliefs (and are also whiter).
Some people, however, opt to forego juries, which, in many states, criminal defendants have a right to do. We see this most often in cases where law enforcement officers are charged with hurting or killing civilians. In nearly every high-profile case where a police officer is tried for killing a civilian and waives a jury––including in the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Melissa Williams and Timothy Russell in Cleveland, Anthony Lamar Smith in St. Louis, and Sean Bell and Deborah Danner in New York––judges have found the officers not guilty. When Judge Timothy Wilson, a former prosecutor, acquitted officer Jason Stockley of the murder of Anthony Lamar Smith, he revealed his pro-law enforcement bias when he wrote in his ruling that, from his experience, “an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly.” [Bennett Gershman / Law and Crime]
Although the U.S. deprives many criminal defendants and others of a fair jury trial, it stands almost alone in granting juries to civil litigants. But this practice, too, has been circumvented by powerful corporations, who prefer judges or arbitrators. These companies often force customers and employees to sign contracts agreeing to settle disputes outside the courts, through private arbitration. But after arbitration costs rose, many residential leases, checking-account agreements, auto loans, and mortgage contracts began including jury waivers, which let disputes go to court, but only if they are heard by a judge. Corporations believe juries are biased against them, but others say judges are biased toward companies. And critics add that jury waivers unfairly deny citizens access to the legal options guaranteed by the Constitution. [Jane Spencer / Wall Street Journal]
The Supreme Court did not do much to dispel the notion that judges are pro-corporation when it ruled in May that companies may require workers to settle employment disputes through individual arbitration rather than joining to press their complaints in class actions. “Employees may now be forced behind closed doors into an individual, costly — and often secret — arbitration process,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and chief executive of the National Women’s Law Center. “This will stack the deck in favor of the employer.” [Robert Barnes / Washington Post]