The Role of a Jury in Dealing With Contested Traffic Tickets

October 9th, 2020 by Tad Nelson in Traffic Offenses

When you receive a traffic ticket in Texas, you have the right to contest that ticket in court. These cases are normally tried in a municipal court, which has jurisdiction over Class C misdemeanors punishable by fines only–no jail time–such as traffic violations. By default, you will receive a jury trial, unless you agree in writing to let the judge decide your case alone.

CCA Declines to Resolve Law on “Bifurcation” of Traffic Cases

Earlier this year, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) addressed a situation where a defendant in a traffic case asked for a jury to determine his guilt, but wished to have the judge alone assess any potential fine. Texas law is unclear as to whether this type of split-proceeding is permissible. And unfortunately, the CCA’s decision did not exactly clear things up.

The defendant in this case, In re Yeager wished to contest a traffic ticket he received in Travis County. The defendant appeared before Judge John Yeager of the City of Austin Municipal Court. Before the judge, the defendant asked for what is known as bifurcated trial: He wanted a jury to decide his guilt, and if it did so, for Judge Yeager to assess the fine.

Prosecutors objected to the bifurcation, citing an unpublished 2013 opinion from the Travis County Court of Law, which held “the jury must assess punishment in fine-only crimes.” Judge Yeager overruled the objection. The prosecution then asked Travis County Court Judge Eric M. Shepperd to issue an order–known as a writ of mandamus–directing Judge Yeager to follow the unpublished opinion and “refrain from assessing punishment when the underlying cause is tried by jury.”

police lights

Judge Yeager then asked the CCA for his own writ of mandamus, essentially throwing out Judge Shepperd’s writ. The CCA conditionally agreed. The appellate court held that the law on this point was unsettled. The relevant statute “does not clearly prohibit a judge from assessing punishment after a jury verdict of guilt on a not guilty plea in a Class C misdemeanor case.”

As such, the CCA said Judge Shepperd erred when he categorically forbade Judge Yeager from bifurcating the defendant’s case. The Court did not, however, resolve the underlying issue. But three judges wrote separately to express their views. Judge Barbara Hervey, writing for the group, said she believed the law clearly prevented a municipal court judge “from assessing punishment after a defendant is convicted by a jury on a not-guilty plea.”

Judge Hervey noted the statute in question provides that in “all criminal cases, other than misdemeanor cases of which the justice court or municipal court has jurisdiction,” bifurcation is required. She would read the use of the phrase “other than” to create a “prohibition” against such judges, including Judge Yeager, from bifurcating trials.

Speak with a Houston Traffic Violations Defense Lawyer Today

Deciding whether to contest your traffic ticket before a jury or a judge sitting alone represents the exercise of an important constitutional right. If you need legal advice on making such a decision, a qualified criminal defense attorney can help. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston, or League City today to speak with a lawyer right away. 

 

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