Navigating the Bench Trial Process in Nevada

If you are arrested and charged with committing a crime in Nevada, you will need to decide whether to take your case to trial or enter into a plea agreement with the State. If you choose to go to trial, you will likely have another important decision to make that can directly impact the outcome of your case. You will need to decide whether to proceed with a jury trial or a bench trial. If you are faced with this choice, a better understanding of what is involved in navigating the bench trial process in Nevada may be helpful.

Your Right to a Trial by Jury

As a defendant in a criminal prosecution, you have a right to a trial by jury as guaranteed by both the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of Nevada. In Nevada, however, your right to a trial by jury does not apply if the maximum potential sentence for the crime you are accused of committing is six months or less. Consequently, the right to a trial by jury does not apply to most prosecutions involving misdemeanor offenses. As such, your case will automatically be set for a bench trial if you are accused of a simple misdemeanor. The exception to this general rule can be found when the offense in question is domestic violence. In that case, you are entitled to a trial by jury even if the charge carries a maximum penalty of six months or less.

What Is the Difference Between a Jury Trial and a Bench Trial?

The primary difference between a jury trial and a bench trial can be found in who renders the verdict at the end of the case. In a jury trial, members of the community listen to the evidence and arguments throughout the trial and render a verdict at the end. In a bench trial, the judge listens to the evidence and arguments and renders the verdict.

Doesn’t a Judge Preside Over All Trials?

Yes. A judge always presides over a trial; however, when a jury is seated, the judge’s role does not include determining guilt. A judge always oversees a trial, regardless of whether it is a jury or bench trial. A judge’s duties and responsibilities during any trial include things such as ruling on the admissibility of evidence, providing the jury with jury instructions, and sentencing the defendant if he/she is found guilty. The difference in a bench trial is that the judge will also decide whether the prosecution has met its burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas in a jury trial, that function is allocated to the jury.

Can I Choose to Have a Bench Trial?

Even if you have a constitutional right to a jury trial, you may waive your right to a jury trial and choose a bench trial instead. For major felony cases, the court will likely put your case on the jury trial calendar at your initial hearing. If, after consulting with your criminal defense attorney, you decide you would prefer a bench trial, you will likely need to formally waive your right to a jury trial in court. Once that is accomplished, the court will schedule your bench trial.

Can I Choose the Judge in a Bench Trial?

Unfortunately, you do not have the right to choose the judge who will preside over your bench trial. Judges are assigned by the court administration based on a rotating schedule and/or by the type of case being tried. Your attorney can request a change of judge if there is a good reason, such as the assigned judge appears biased or has personal knowledge of the case or parties. Otherwise, you are stuck with the assigned judge.

Why Might a Bench Trial Be a Better Choice?

Because every criminal prosecution involves unique facts and circumstances, you should discuss the advantages and disadvantages of electing a bench trial with your criminal defense attorney. Some factors to consider, however, include:

  • Complex legal issues: Juries often get confused when complex legal issues or concepts are involved, whereas a judge should understand them. This can work in your favor or against you, depending on the issues/concepts involved.
  • Excluded evidence: Evidence may be excluded by the judge prior to trial. As such, jury members will never know about that evidence. Although it cannot legally be considered if it was excluded, the judge who ruled on the motion to exclude will know about the evidence which can work against you if that evidence suggests that you are guilty.
  • Notoriety: Although prospective jurors will be screened for prior knowledge of the case during jury selection, it can be virtually impossible to find jurors with no knowledge of the case when the case has been highly publicized. In that case, it may be better to trust a judge to set aside any preconceived notions about the case.
  • Reputation of the judge: Judges are human, meaning they develop tendencies and opinions regarding legal issues. Knowing which direction the judge assigned to your case leans regarding relevant issues can be crucial when deciding to proceed with a bench trial or stick to a jury trial.

What Should I Do If I Am Facing Criminal Charges in Las Vegas?

If you were arrested and charged with committing a criminal offense in Las Vegas, consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney at The Vegas Lawyers as soon as possible to discuss your legal options and defenses. Call us at 702-707-7000 or contact us online.