Petty Offenses, Serious Consequences: Multiple Petty Offenses and the Sixth Amendment Right to Jury Trial

In Blanton v. City of North Las Vegas, the Supreme Court set forth the definitive standard for distinguishing petty offenses from serious crimes.7 The benchmark used by the Court is the maximum prison term assigned to each offense by the legislature. Where the penalty exceeds six months’ imprisonment, the offense is serious enough to trigger the right to jury trial. Where the penalty is six months’ imprisonment or less, there is a strong presumption that the offense is petty; therefore, a defendant accused of that offense has no Sixth Amendment right to jury trial.

This Note argues that a criminal defendant accused of multiple offenses has no Sixth Amendment right to jury trial unless one or more of the offenses – considered individually – is serious under the Blanton standard. Part I explores one principal that pervades the Supreme Court jurisprudence regarding the petty-offense exception: community preferences determine whether a criminal charge is petty or serious; The Court measures community preferences by looking to the maximum penalty set by the legislature; if no statutory penalty exists, then the Court uses the sentence imposed by the judge as a substitute. Part II argues that, for multiple petty offenses, the Blanton standard should be applied to each offense individually because this is the only approach consistent with the Court’s petty-offense-exception jurisprudence. Therefore, this Note concludes that multiple petty offenses do not trigger the Sixth Amendment right to jury trial.