Friday, January 17, 2014 · by Tamara Aparton
What is SB 794?
Update #2 -05/19/14: SB 794 has been assigned to the California Assembly’s Committee on Public Safety. Your help is critically needed—now more than ever. Tell state assembly members that our right to a fair trial is too important to lose!
Update–1/28/14: SB 794 is headed to the California Assembly after narrowly passing in the Senate .
Senate Bill 794, a so-called “cost-saving measure” proposed by State Sen. Noreen Evans and sponsored by the California Judges Association, would erode our constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury by cutting down the number of peremptory challenges available to both prosecutors and defense attorneys in misdemeanor criminal trials.
Current law allows each party either six or 10 peremptory challenges, depending on whether the maximum sentence for the charged offense exceeds or does not exceed 90 days in jail. Under SB 794, peremptory challenges would be cut to five per side in all misdemeanors. In addition, in multiple defendant cases, current law allows either five or four additional peremptories per defendant, while SB 794 would reduce the number to two.
Also be sure to read Jeff Adachi’s Op-Ed in the Daily Journal regarding SB 794.
What are peremptory challenges?
Peremptory challenges allow attorneys to remove jurors without stating a reason. They are a critical tool for both prosecutors and defense attorneys to build a jury that represents a diversity of viewpoints and is free of bias. These challenges are most often used to remove jurors who may say all the right things, but whom attorneys suspect are prejudiced. The Supreme Court has often held that peremptory challenges are an essential means for ensuring fairness.
But won’t the legislation save time and money?
Put simply: No. Any cost savings recouped from paring down peremptory challenges would be lost through a more drawn out jury selection process. To satisfy the more restrictive challenges for cause, attorneys would have to extend jury selection in order to gather more information about potential jurors. This would clog the courts with numerous trial delays.
What can I do?
Step 1: Read this letter:
RE: SB 794-OPPOSE
Dear California Assembly Committee on Public Safety,
I write to express my strong opposition to Senate Bill 794, which would reduce the number of peremptory challenges available in misdemeanor cases. This bill is opposed by the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA), the California Public Defenders Association (CPDA) and the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice (CACJ).
For one accused of a crime, the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a fair and impartial jury. This is a fundamental right not only for those facing serious charges, but those accused of misdemeanors as well. Peremptory challenges are a critical tool used by prosecutors and defense attorneys an opportunity to weed out biased jurors and protect this constitutional guarantee.
The Supreme Court has often held that peremptory challenges are an essential means for ensuring fairness. The purpose of the peremptory challenge, the Court said, is “to assure the parties that the jurors before whom they try the case will decide on the basis of the evidence placed before them, and not otherwise.” In Holland v. Illinois, Justice Scalia wrote that “peremptory challenges, by enabling each side to exclude those jurors it believes will be most partial toward the other side, are a means of eliminating extremes of partiality on both sides, thereby assuring the selection of a qualified and unbiased jury.”
Peremptory challenges allow our attorneys to use their training and experience to dismiss jurors who they suspect, but cannot prove, are harboring bias. It also allows them to dismiss jurors who simply do not want to serve and have failed in their attempts to be excused by the judge. Such jurors are less likely to pay close attention to the evidence and arguments. As a result, the verdicts they render are less well-considered.
Reduction of peremptory challenges is a dangerous bargain, because it puts the rights of the dismissed juror over the rights of the defendant to challenge those who may harbor prejudice. Peremptory challenges help ensure a diversity of viewpoints on the jury, making it more likely that the jury will reflect the values of the community as a whole.
Finally, the proposed legislation does not make financial sense. Any cost savings recouped from reducing peremptory challenges would be lost through a more drawn out jury selection process. To satisfy the more restrictive challenges for cause, attorneys would have to spend more time voir dire in order to gather more information about potential jurors. This would result in more time spent selecting a jury, not less.
I urge you to vote no on SB 794. The right to an impartial jury is the heart of our legal system, not the fat to be trimmed. Thank you for your consideration.
Step 2: Fill out this form:
Step 3: Sit back and relax, we’ll handle the rest! SB 794 should be opposed because it threatens the fundamental right to a fair trial. The right to an impartial jury is the heart of our legal system, not the fat to be trimmed.