Requesting a Jury Trial in a Wisconsin OWI Case: What You Need to Know

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When you get charged with operating while intoxicated (OWI) in Wisconsin, the decisions you make early in your case can impact your life for years to come. This includes your decision regarding whether to request a jury trial. Unlike some states, Wisconsin affords the right to a jury trial to all OWI offenders. So, should you request a jury trial? The answer to this question depends on the circumstances of your case.

Understanding Your Right to a Jury Trial in a Wisconsin OWI Case

While you have the right to a jury trial in your OWI case, it is up to you to request a jury. If you don’t, a judge will hear the facts of your case instead. A judge will preside over your case either way; but, if you elect a jury trial, the judge’s role will be more limited (though the judge could still ultimately decide the outcome of your case, as we discuss below). When a judge hears the facts of your case, this is referred to as a bench trial.

In Wisconsin OWI cases, the jury has six members. Importantly, however, the six jurors do not need to reach a unanimous verdict to find you guilty. This is because an OWI is classified as a traffic violation instead of a crime. In OWI cases, it is enough if five of the six jurors agree that the prosecution has met its burden of proof.

Even though OWI isn’t a crime in Wisconsin, the prosecution’s burden of proof is still “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means that at least five of the six jurors must be thoroughly convinced that you broke the law. Under Wisconsin’s OWI statute, this could mean that either: (i) you were driving under the influence; or, (ii) your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was over the legal limit.

Why Should (or Shouldn’t) You Request a Jury Trial?

As we mentioned above, whether you should request a jury trial depends on the circumstances of your OWI case. To see why, we can look at some of the benefits of jury trials and the contrasting benefits of bench trials. Some of the benefits of having a jury hear your OWI case include:

  • You get to play a role in the jury selection process
  • If five or more jurors cannot agree that you are guilty, you won’t be convicted
  • Jurors may be more sympathetic to your personal circumstances than a judge
  • Before the jury deliberates, you can ask the judge to acquit you based on a lack of evidence (and, if the judge denies your motion, you still get the benefit of having a jury)
  • Having a jury hear your case can provide additional grounds for appeal if you get convicted

In contrast, some of the benefits of having a judge decide the outcome of your Wisconsin OWI case include:

  • If you have technical defenses that are not based on innocence, a judge may be better able to understand these defenses and render a just verdict
  • If you are not a sympathetic defendant (i.e., if you are being accused of causing a serious accident while driving drunk), a judge may be more likely to render an unbiased decision
  • Compared to jury trials, bench trials are relatively quick and inexpensive

Just because we’ve listed fewer benefits for bench trials, this doesn’t necessarily mean that a jury trial is always the best option—it isn’t. When deciding whether to request a jury trial, you need to make an informed decision based on what is likely to give you the best chance of a favorable outcome in light of all of the facts at hand.

3 Ways to Resolve Your OWI Case Without Going to Trial

While choosing to request a jury trial (or choosing not to request a jury trial) is an extremely important decision, it is important to keep in mind that going to trial isn’t necessarily your only option. Regardless of whether you exercise your right to a trial by jury, you may be able to achieve a favorable outcome without relying on a judge or jury to conclude that the prosecution hasn’t met its burden of proof.

How? Before your case goes to trial, you may be able to achieve a favorable outcome by:

1. Entering Into a Diversion Program

If you are eligible to participate in a diversion program, you can avoid an OWI conviction regardless of the facts of your case—provided that you complete the program successfully. With these programs, your OWI case is “diverted” from trial during your participation; and, if you complete the program successfully, your OWI charge will be dropped. While there are financial costs and time commitments involved, these costs can be well worth it if they save you from the consequences of an OWI conviction.

2. Negotiating a Plea Bargain

If you aren’t eligible to participate in a diversion program, then the next best option may be to seek a plea bargain. While you generally shouldn’t accept a plea bargain if you have strong trial defenses available, if you don’t have strong trial defenses available, negotiating a plea can help to mitigate the consequences of your arrest.

3. Getting the Judge to Dismiss Your OWI Charge

Finally, in some cases, it will be possible to secure a dismissal before trial. If the prosecution’s evidence is inadmissible because the police violated your constitutional rights, or if some other facts or circumstances mean you don’t deserve to stand trial, an experienced OWI defense lawyer may be able to help end your trial before it begins.

Discuss Your Options with an OWI Defense Lawyer in Madison, WI

Are you wondering whether you should request a jury trial in your Wisconsin OWI case? If so, our lawyers can help you make an informed decision, and we can assert all available defenses on your behalf. To learn more in a free and confidential consultation, give us a call at 608-257-0440 or request an appointment online today.