After many years practicing in Colorado state and federal courts, it can be a shock to the seasoned attorney to arrive in the strange world of municipal court. Each municipality operates a little differently, but there are some striking similarities that ought to be troubling to the defense bar. First, it seems that municipal courts in Colorado have their own take on whether or not a person has the right to a jury trial. The right to a jury trial is protected by the 6 th Amendment to the United States and Colorado Constitutions, but in municipal court an accused must pay a jury fee by a certain deadline or they will lose that right. How are we not troubled by this?
In municipal court, often the accused must enter a plea of guilty or not guilty on the very first court appearance, sometimes after having just been arrested and spending the night in jail. If a person asks for a public defender or for time to hire an attorney, their court date is usually set out for about a month. The bewildered accused is then told they must pay a jury trial fee, usually within 10 days, or they will lose their right to a jury trial.
Recently, several people have come to me to hire me for their municipal case and plan to take their case to jury trial. When I take a look at their case, I often find that they cannot have a jury trial because they did not pay the jury fee. I always file a motion regarding this and demand a jury trial and I have both won and lost that battle in municipal court. The other day, I sat in municipal court frustrated over this exact issue and realized that each person called to the podium, most without counsel yet, had already failed to pay the jury fee and lost their right to jury trial. The crimes that are charged in municipal court can involve weapons violations, assault or domestic violence. Municipal court convictions carry very serious consequences if convicted. Yet, despite the possibility of jail time, despite the possibility of a conviction that might destroy a person’s career, and despite the lack of counsel at the time the jury fee is due, municipal courts are often unwavering in their resolve to refuse the jury trial unless the fee was paid.
A plea of not guilty is a denial of the charges and is accompanied by a request for a trial. The trial can be a trial to the court or a jury trial. As a criminal defense attorney for over a decade, I have never voluntarily chosen a trial to the court over a jury trial. There are reasons that one might do so, but the vast majority of the time I would absolutely prefer a jury.
In state courts, as long as the crime charge has penalty for 6 months jail or more, the defendant is entitled to a jury trial as a matter of right. As to the right to jury trials in municipal court, see C.M.C.R. 223(a). A defendant must file any applicable jury fee within the time limits imposed: usually within 10 days in municipal courts on all charges.
There is something quite uncomfortable to me that a person standing in the United States of America must face charges with incredible consequences in municipal court and is not entitled to a jury trial as a matter of right. It may also be argued that the process in municipal court is unfair in that the defendant is forced to enter a plea (initiating the time-limit for jury fee), yet the next court date is often set well beyond the jury trial fee deadline. The court date to appear with counsel or apply for a public defender is also well beyond the jury fee deadline. Is this deliberate? Are municipal courts trying to ensure that many or even most defendants will not be eligible for a jury trial? While budget and efficiency issues may play a large role in this, it is my view that if a person stands accused and must pay the consequences if convicted, that the municipal courts should give them a jury trial if requested – even if the fee is paid a little late.
If you have been charged with a crime in municipal, state or federal court in Colorado, please give the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Feldmann Nagel LLC a call. 1-(888) 458-0991.