Issue surrounding Duncan v Duncan v Louisiana

Duncan v Louisiana 1968

The right to due process of law is a constitutional right that has been defended and debated over the years to come up with a reasonable development of guidelines to be applied by both the federal and state governments. In the situation of Duncan v Louisiana (1968) the challenge by the defendant was that Louisiana had violated his right to a trial by jury as the crime he was accused of and subsequently convicted of was a serious crime potentially punishable by a sentence of up to two years and yet he had been denied a trial by jury because under Louisiana law simple battery, the charge was a misdemeanor and the sentence the man received was only 6 months. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defendant claiming that Louisiana had violated the man’s constitutional rights by denying him a trial by jury in a serious offence.

Historically speaking the chronology of due process and the right to impartial judgment begins with the fundamental constitutional standards but challenges to these rights began as early as 1927. Though some would say before this in broader cases such as the Indian exclusion acts and the Japanese internment of WWII, where individuals were detained and punished with no due process trial or otherwise.

In Tumez v. Ohio (1927), the Supreme Court ruled that the Bill of Rights, particularly Amendments 5 and 6, applies even to the most minor state courts. Denial of these rights constitutes a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause, which states: “Every defendant has the right to an impartial judge.” (Rosen, 1990, p. 20)

Tumez v Ohio reiterated that no matter how minor an offence or a court system the defendant was granted by the constitution the right to a fair and impartial hearing by fair and impartial judge. This case set precedence for later cases requiring due process of law for criminal proceedings. Gender was the question in Taylor v. Louisiana as juries were at this time traditionally and in some cases legally only represented by men and yet the defendant in this case Taylor felt that this gave her an unfair and partial judgment as men were not by default her peers:

Taylor v. Louisiana (1975), to ensure that a jury is impartial, the court ruled that women may not be excluded. Everyone charged with a penal offense has to have guarantees for his or her defense, states Article 11. (Rosen, 1990, pp. 20-21)

Legal representation was ensured by Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) and in “Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the high court ruled that suspects must be apprised of their rights upon arrest” While in Duncan v. Louisiana (1968) the Supreme Court ruled that the defendant can demand a trial by jury in cases where the potential for sentencing is greater than 6 days and a fine greater than $150. (Rosen, 1990, p. 21)

The legal issue surrounding Duncan v. Duncan v. Louisiana is a clear sense that the exclusion of the opportunity of jury trial cannot be used as a way to allow partial decisions to be made in judgment against another. Louisiana chose to attempt to maintain a conviction of Duncan though there was no clear evidence, other than relatively inflammatory witness testimony that battery had occurred at all. Louisiana found that it did not have enough evidence to convict Duncan on the battery charge so it tried to waive the right to a jury by saying that the charge against Duncan was to minor to require such and allow the judge to rule and sentence Duncan without due process. It is likely that this had been done in many cases before, to ensure that convictions held but also simply as a result of the fact that there are limited resources for jury trials in any given jurisdiction and they are very costly. Though it would remain to be seen if Duncan would have been convicted and subsequently sentenced by a jury of the battery charge, that he adamantly denied culpability of his appeal was that he had a right via the constitution to a trial by jury as his case was criminal and he felt it needed to be heard by more than one individual and thus decided, as did his appellate attorney and in the end the Supreme Court.

Here is a brief synopsis of the prior case according to the Supreme Court Record.

Gary Duncan (19) was convicted of simple battery in the 25th Judicial District of Louisiana. Under Louisiana law simple battery is a misdemeanor and does not require or allow a trial by jury, despite the fact that it is punishable by up to 2 years in prison (meeting the federal 6-month requirement for necessity of trial by jury offering.) Duncan was sentenced to 6 months in jail and a fine of $150. Here is the legal play by play of events that ended in the arrest of Duncan and the subsequent trial testimony of the witnesses and the defendant.

Appellant was 19 years of age when tried. While driving on Highway 23 in Plaquemines Parish on October 18, 1966, he saw two younger cousins engaged in a conversation by the side of the road with four white boys. Knowing his cousins, Negroes who had recently transferred to a formerly all-white high school, had reported the occurrence of racial incidents at the school, Duncan stopped the car, got out, and approached the six boys. At trial the white boys and a white onlooker testified, as did appellant and his cousins. The testimony was in dispute on many points, but the witnesses agreed that appellant and the white boys spoke to each other, that appellant encouraged his cousins to break off the encounter and enter his car, and that appellant was about to enter the car himself for the purpose of driving away with his cousins. The whites testified that just before getting in the car appellant slapped Herman Landry, one of the white boys, on the elbow. The Negroes testified that appellant had not slapped Landry, but had merely touched him. The trial judge concluded that the State had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Duncan had committed simple battery, and found him guilty. (Duncan v. Louisiana, 1968)

The rule of law in the case does not question the authority of the state to deem some crime petty an therefore not eligible for a jury trial offering but in the case where the potential sentence of outcome in this case was 2 years constitutes that it was a serious crime deserving of jury trial consideration.

It is sufficient for our purposes to hold that a crime punishable by two years in prison is, based on past and contemporary standards in this country, a serious crime and not a petty offense. Consequently, appellant was entitled to a jury trial and it was error to deny it. (Duncan v. Louisiana, 1968)

In short what the Supreme Court ruled is that when a defendant is facing a sentence greater than or equal to 2 years (with the federal standard being set at 6 months) the defendant is clearly eligible for a jury trial and this right cannot be waived by the state but only by the defendant as per his/her 14th amendment right to due process of law.

Because we believe that trial by jury in criminal cases is fundamental to the American scheme of justice, we hold that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees a right of jury trial in all criminal cases which — were they to be tried in a federal court — would come within the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee. Since we consider the appeal before us to be such a case, we hold that the Constitution was violated when appellant’s demand for jury trial was refused. (Duncan v. Louisiana, 1968)

Duncan clearly had his rights violated when he asked for a jury trial and did not receive one. Especially given that the conviction was held on conflicting and limited witness testimony that was likely highly charged and differential. In the end is it possible that battery occurred simply because the defendant touched the other individual and yet it is unlikely that intent to do harm, an aspect of battery could have been proven in a court of law without a reasonable doubt.

The outcomes of this case are argued in favor and against where some state that the ruling required states to reduce minimum mandatory sentencing in petty crimes while others argue that it establishes the federal minimum of petty designation across the states. In general it is true that this ruling was conservative in that the Supreme Court waived the right and desire to strictly rule on the issue of what makes a crime serious enough to warrant a jury trial bunt instead rule that in this particular case, because the defendant was facing the potential of 2 years in jail he was guaranteed a right to a jury trial if he so desired.

The result of this ruling is clearly the development of a system that extends the right of an offering of a trial by jury to any defendant who is facing a sentencing for a crime that would break the 6-month federal rule. The ruling further expands the rights of the accused over the rights of the state to curtail such expenses in cases it deems minor. To some degree the ruling also makes it so sentencing lengths for “minor” crimes be kept in check as if such crimes were allowed to be given sentences of extreme then defendants would much more frequently ask for trial by jury rather than waiving such right and allowing judgment by a single entity or a small group of impartial judges.

Works Cited

Eidelberg, Paul. On the Silence of the Declaration of Independence. Amherst University of Massachusetts Press, 1976.

Rosen, Philip. “Teaching the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a U.S. Government Course.” Social Studies 81.1 (1990): 19-25.

Supreme Court of the United States Duncan v. Louisiana 391 U.S. 145 May 20, 1968 Decided. April 20, 2008

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