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U.S. Supreme Court
BLANTON v. NORTH LAS VEGAS, 489 U.S. 538 (1989)

No. 87-1437
Argued January 9, 1989
Decided March 6, 1989

JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case is whether there is a constitutional right to a trial by jury for persons charged under Nevada law with driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). Nev. Rev. Stat. 484.379(1) (1987). We hold that there is not.

DUI is punishable by a minimum term of two days' imprisonment and a maximum term of six months' imprisonment. 484.3792(1)(a)(2). Alternatively, a trial court may order the defendant "to perform 48 hours of work for the community while dressed in distinctive garb which identifies him as [a DUI offender]." Ibid. The defendant also must pay a fine ranging from $200 to $1,000. 484.3792(1)(a)(3). In addition, the defendant automatically loses his driver's license for 90 days, 483.460(1)(c),[fn1] and he must attend, at his own [489 U.S. 538, 540] expense, an alcohol abuse education course. 484.3792(1) (a)(1). Repeat DUI offenders are subject to increased penalties.[fn2]

Petitioners Melvin R. Blanton and Mark D. Fraley were charged with DUI in separate incidents. Neither petitioner had a prior DUI conviction. The North Las Vegas, Nevada, Municipal Court denied their respective pretrial demands for a jury trial. On appeal, the Eighth Judicial District Court denied Blanton's request for a jury trial but, a month later, granted Fraley's. Blanton then appealed to the Supreme Court of Nevada, as did respondent city of North Las Vegas with respect to Fraley. After consolidating the two cases along with several others raising the same issue, the Supreme Court concluded, inter alia, that the Federal Constitution does not guarantee a right to a jury trial for a DUI offense because the maximum term of incarceration is only six months and the maximum possible fine is $1,000. 103 Nev. 623, 748 P.2d 494 (1987).[fn3] We granted certiorari to consider whether petitioners were entitled to a jury trial, 487 U.S. 1203 (1988), and now affirm. [489 U.S. 538, 541]

It has long been settled that "there is a category of petty crimes or offenses which is not subject to the Sixth Amendment jury trial provision." Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 159 (1968); see also District of Columbia v. Clawans, 300 U.S. 617, 624 (1937); Callan v. Wilson, 127 U.S. 540, 557 (1888).[fn4] In determining whether a particular offense should be categorized as "petty," our early decisions focused on the nature of the offense and on whether it was triable by a jury at common law. See, e. g., District of Columbia v. Colts, 282 U.S. 63, 73 (1930); Callan, supra, at 555-557. In recent years, however, we have sought more "objective indications of the seriousness with which society regards the offense." Frank v. United States, 395 U.S. 147, 148 (1969).[fn5] "[W]e have found the most relevant such criteria in the severity of the maximum authorized penalty." Baldwin v. New York, 399 U.S. 66, 68 (1970) (plurality opinion); see also Duncan, supra, at 159. In fixing the maximum penalty for a crime, a legislature "include[s] within the definition of the crime itself a judgment about the seriousness of the offense." Frank, supra, at 149. The judiciary should not substitute its judgment as to seriousness for that of a legislature, which is "far better equipped to perform the task, and [is] likewise more responsive to changes in attitude and more amenable to the [489 U.S. 538, 542] recognition and correction of their misperceptions in this respect." Landry v. Hoepfner, 840 F.2d 1201, 1209 (CA5 1988) (en banc), cert. pending, No. 88-5043.

In using the word "penalty," we do not refer solely to the maximum prison term authorized for a particular offense. A legislature's view of the seriousness of an offense also is reflected in the other penalties that it attaches to the offense. See United States v. Jenkins, 780 F.2d 472, 474, and n. 3 (CA4), cert. denied, 476 U.S. 1161 (1986). We thus examine "whether the length of the authorized prison term or the seriousness of other punishment is enough in itself to require a jury trial." Duncan, supra, at 161 (emphasis added); see also Frank, 395 U.S., at 152 (three years' probation is not "onerous enough to make an otherwise petty offense `serious'").[fn6] Primary emphasis, however, must be placed on the maximum authorized period of incarceration. Penalties such as probation or a fine may engender "a significant infringement of personal freedom," id., at 151, but they cannot approximate in severity the loss of liberty that a prison term entails. Indeed, because incarceration is an "intrinsically different" form of punishment, Muniz v. Hoffman, 422 U.S. 454, 477 (1975), it is the most powerful indication of whether an offense is "serious."

Following this approach, our decision in Baldwin established that a defendant is entitled to a jury trial whenever the offense for which he is charged carries a maximum authorized prison term of greater than six months. 399 U.S., at 69 ; see id., at 74-76 (Black, J., concurring in judgment). The possibility of a sentence exceeding six months, we determined, is "sufficiently severe by itself" to require the opportunity for a jury trial. Id., at 69, n. 6. As for a prison term of six months or less, we recognized that it will seldom be viewed by the defendant as "trivial or `petty.'" Id., at 73. But we [489 U.S. 538, 543] found that the disadvantages of such a sentence, "onerous though they may be, may be outweighed by the benefits that result from speedy and inexpensive nonjury adjudications." Ibid.; see also Duncan, supra, at 160.

Although we did not hold in Baldwin that an offense carrying a maximum prison term of six months or less automatically qualifies as a "petty" offense,[fn7] and decline to do so today, we do find it appropriate to presume for purposes of the Sixth Amendment that society views such an offense as "petty." A defendant is entitled to a jury trial in such circumstances only if he can demonstrate that any additional statutory penalties, viewed in conjunction with the maximum authorized period of incarceration, are so severe that they clearly reflect a legislative determination that the offense in question is a "serious" one. This standard, albeit somewhat imprecise, should ensure the availability of a jury trial in the rare situation where a legislature packs an offense it deems "serious" with onerous penalties that nonetheless "do not puncture the 6-month incarceration line." Brief for Petitioners 16.[fn8]

Applying these principles here, it is apparent that petitioners are not entitled to a jury trial. The maximum authorized prison sentence for first-time DUI offenders does not exceed six months. A presumption therefore exists that the Nevada Legislature views DUI as a "petty" offense for purposes [489 U.S. 538, 544] of the Sixth Amendment. Considering the additional statutory penalties as well, we do not believe that the Nevada Legislature has clearly indicated that DUI is a "serious" offense.