Mandatory Minimums Have Eviscerated the Right to a Trial by Jury

Last year, during committee debate on a (very good) bill by Senator Rob Bradley, Florida Senate President-Designate Joe Negron gave an eloquent defense of the constitutional right to a trial by jury and the importance of forcing the state to meet its burden of proof in criminal cases. He said:

If the State of Florida is going to accuse a citizen of committing a crime, the State of Florida has the burden of proof in each and every part of the proceeding to prove that beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt . . . It’s something that is central to our entire system. I think the right to a trial by jury, and the right to have the state prove charges against you beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt, has the same priority in my mind as the right to vote. It’s a fundamental American right.

President-Designate Negron is in good company. America’s founders agreed that the jury trial was an indispensable right. Professor Doug Berman gives a quick overview of the importance of the jury right to America’s founders here:

The Framers adored juries, as the Supreme Court’s most vocal originalist is quick to spotlight. In Blakely v. Washington, for example, Justice Antonin Scalia stresses that “the Framers put a jury-trial guarantee in the Constitution [because] they were unwilling to trust government to mark out the role of the jury.” In another opinion, Justice Scalia emphasizes that the Declaration of Independence assailed King George III for depriving colonists of “the Benefits of Trial by Jury” and notes that “the right to trial by jury in criminal cases was the only guarantee common to the 12 state constitutions that predated the Constitutional Convention.” Justice Scalia has also highlighted Justice Joseph Story’s explanation that the jury trial right “was designed ‘to guard against a spirit of oppression and tyranny on the part of rulers,’ and ‘was from very early times insisted on by our ancestors in the parent country, as the great bulwark of their civil and political liberties.’

And yet, PBS tells us jury trials are becoming less common, in part because mandatory minimums have changed the cost-benefit analysis for defendants weighing plea bargain offers. Often, defendants who insist on their innocence nevertheless plead guilty because a conviction would automatically trigger a harsh mandatory sentence.

I was reminded of President-Designate Negron’s speech the other day when I saw a story about a 69-year-old man charged with aggravated assault with a firearm. Readers of this blog know that Florida repealed the mandatory minimum sentence for aggravated assault this year. However, that reform took effect on July 1, 2016, and because this alleged crime took place before that date, this defendant is still facing a potential 20-year mandatory minimum prison sentence if convicted.

The facts of the case are not unique. The state alleges the defendant was angry and fired a gun at a car in a fit of road rage. The defendant denies the charge, claiming he fired only out of fear for his life. We’ve seen this kind of thing before. (Several times.) I don’t know if the defendant is guilty of this crime. But a bedrock principle of American justice provides that a defendant is innocent until the state proves beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt that defendant’s guilt to a jury of his peers. That’s a high burden, and rightfully so. The state shouldn’t be allowed to deprive a person of his liberty without the consent of his peers.

Defendants facing 20 years for aggravated assault are often offered plea bargains of three years in prison. If the defendant in the above case is offered something similar, how could he not seriously consider taking the deal, despite his insistence that he committed no crime? This mandatory minimum law — repealed and yet still wreaking havoc across our state — has stacked the deck against this defendant so heavily that if he pleads guilty, he might still have a life after his prison term. But if he opts to exercise his constitutional right to trial and loses — self-defense cases are coin flips — there’s a good chance he could die in prison. This “trial penalty,” as it’s come to be known, is unjust on its face. But it has the additional cost of yielding perverse outcomes. Those who know they’re guilty almost certainly plead that way in exchange for lighter sentences. Those who maintain their innocence opt for trial, and are punished severely upon conviction.

President-Designate Negron is exactly right. The right to a trial by jury is fundamental to American liberty. (Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Thomas Paine that he considered trial by jury “the only anchor, ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”) But mandatory minimums have so thoroughly burdened that right that the government almost never has to actually prove its charges in court. This is a perversion of due process, and it would be anathema to the founders’ vision of a free society. To truly protect our cherished rights against government overreach, we need to restore balance to the criminal justice system and get rid of mandatory minimum laws.

~Greg Newburn, FAMM State Policy Director