What is a Bench Trial?

People who have been arrested or issued citations often have to appear in court for a bench trial. Those who have never been in this situation before are often unfamiliar with bench trials and how they work. If this is the case, it’s definitely to the accused’s best interests to learn all they possibly can about bench trials and how they work. Here is some helpful information on bench trials.

Related resource: The 19 Cheapest ABA Approved Online Paralegal Programs

What is a Bench Trial?

If a defendant is charged with a crime and must appear in court for a criminal proceeding, the defendant will typically have the choice between a bench trial or a jury trial. In a jury trial, six or 12 people will be chosen to act on the jury and listen to the case. Based on the evidence they hear, these jury members will decide if the defendant is innocent or guilty.

The judge may be the one that rules on certain issues, such as who can testify and what type of testimony they can present, but it’s the jury that decides guilt or innocence in a jury trial. The judge makes the rules, decides guilt or innocence and also gives out the sentencing.

Benefits of a Bench Trial

Many accused individuals automatically choose to have a jury trial because they assume a jury “of their peers” is going to be more sympathetic and lenient than a judge. This is not always the case. There are some benefits to having a bench trial.

  • Faster resolution – Bench trials often go quicker because it may be able to be completed in one day. Jury trials generally take much longer to complete.
  • Dealing with incriminating information – If testimony comes out that can be damaging to the defendant but unimportant to the case, the jury may hear it and use it in deciding the verdict, whereas judges are more capable of being objective and knowing what to use or not use as evidence.
  • Application of rules – If a case stems from certain rules or processes, juries may not be capable of fully understanding the rules and applying them. Judges know and follow the process of the law.

Disadvantages of a Bench Trial

  • A case decided by one person – The attorneys only have to convince one person of guilt or innocence as opposed to convincing six or 12 people.
  • Judge hears all the evidence – In a bench trial, the judge hears everything the attorneys say and will decide which evidence applies to the case, unlike a jury trial where the judge may determine that some evidence not be presented.
  • The judge goes by the law – The judge will usually base his decision on all the facts or laws, whereas a jury may be sympathetic to certain facts or base a decision on personal beliefs.
  • Pressure for convictions – Judges often rule unfavorably to the defendant on certain charges because they feel pressure for more convictions.

Although many people automatically fear the worst when they have to appear for a bench trial, the American Bar Association states that the accused can turn this to their advantage by learning all they can about the judge and the court system prior to the court date. A bench trial doesn’t have to be the end of the world for an accused.