WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled today that most defendants charged with drunk driving do not have a constitutional right to a jury trial.
In a unanimous decision, the justices upheld a Nevada high court ruling that the right to a jury trial does not extend to drunk driving because the offense carries only a maximum penalty of six months' incarceration.
Justice Thurgood Marshall, writing for the high court, found the Nevada law treats the drunk-driving offense as sufficiently "petty" to preclude the right to a jury trial.
As in previous rulings, the high court insisted that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial does not apply to most petty offenses and should be reserved for "serious" offenses that carry a penalty of more than six months.
The court stopped short of making the six-month incarceration period the cut-off line for the right to a jury trial, saying additional penalties could warrant a jury trial. But the justices did not find the other penalties in the Nevada statute to be sufficiently harsh to merit a jury trial.
sh Face Fine, Loss of License
Under the Nevada law, first-time offenders convicted of drunk driving must pay a fine, forfeit their licenses for 90 days and perform 48 hours of community service or serve a prison sentence of up to six months.
"The Nevada Legislature views driving under the influence as a petty offense for purposes of the Sixth Amendment," Marshall wrote. "Consideration of the additional statutory penalties as well, we do not believe that the Nevada Legislature has clearly indicated that driving under the influence is a serious offense."
The Nevada dispute arose when two first-time offenders charged with drunk driving asserted their right to a jury trial in two separate cases.
The Nevada Supreme Court, consolidating the two cases with others that raised the same issue, ruled that the Constitution does not guarantee the right to a jury trial for such offenses.
In other action, the high court:
--Agreed to decide whether a federal court had the power to order members of the Yonkers, N.Y., City Council to enact a minority housing plan. The court rejected a similar appeal filed by the City of Yonkers.