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Section 21 of the Washington State Constitution states:

The right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate, but the legislature may provide for a jury of any number less than twelve in courts not of record, and for a verdict by nine or more jurors in civil cases in any court of record, and for waiving of the jury in civil cases where the consent of the parties interested is given thereto.

RCW 4.48.010 goes on to state in part:

The court shall order all or any of the issues in a civil action, whether of fact or law, or both, referred to a referee upon the written consent of the parties which is filed with the clerk. Any party shall have the right in an action at law, upon an issue of fact, to demand a trial by jury. No referee appointed under this chapter may preside over a jury trial. The written consent of the parties constitutes a waiver of the right of trial by jury by any party having the right.

However, RCW 3.50.135 imposes a restriction where it states in part:

In all civil cases, the plaintiff or defendant may demand a jury, which shall consist of six citizens of the state who shall be impaneled and sworn as in cases before district courts, or the trial may be by a judge of the municipal court: PROVIDED, That no jury trial may be held on a proceeding involving a traffic infraction.

Similarly, RCW 35.20.090 states:

In all civil cases and criminal cases where jurisdiction is concurrent with district courts as provided in RCW 35.20.250, within the jurisdiction of the municipal court, the plaintiff or defendant may demand a jury, which shall consist of six citizens of the state who shall be impaneled and sworn as in cases before district courts, or the trial may be by a judge of the municipal court: PROVIDED, That no jury trial may be held on a proceeding involving a traffic infraction.

Question: Does the wording of 3.50.135 and 35.20.090 impose a limit on the individual's right to demand a trial by jury, or is it instead a restriction on the ability of traffic courts to conduct a jury trial? The wording would seem to indicate the latter because individuals do not hold trials or proceedings, but courts do.

And if my interpretation is correct, what would be an appropriate response or course of action on the part of the traffic court if the defendant in a traffic case insisted on their right to a trial by jury?

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  • 1
    As an aside, the 7th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not create a right to a jury trial in civil actions in state and local courts, and the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution's right to a jury trial has been held to exclude offenses with a maximum punishment of six months or less incarceration. So, this is purely a question of state law and not federal law.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 2, 2023 at 9:19
  • The 6th amendment has been read to not actually provide a right to trial by jury in minor cases; and state courts have applied the same reading to their own constitutions. "RCW 4.48.010" -- why did you delete the preamble, which clearly stated this was about civil matters? "action of law" was in context.
    – Yakk
    Mar 3, 2023 at 15:53
  • @Yakk, I simply left it off for brevity. Added to the question now. So, is traffic court civil, criminal, or neither? I guess this would be at the root of my question, trying to determine what is applicable and what is not... And where is this reading of the 6th amendment you refer to written? Mar 3, 2023 at 16:32
  • @MichaelHall law.justia.com/constitution/us/amendment-06/…
    – Yakk
    Mar 3, 2023 at 16:38

2 Answers 2

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The right to trial by jury under the Washington State Constitution does not attach to mere regulatory infractions: City of Pasco v. Mace, 98 Wn. 2d 87 (Wash. 1982) (still being cited as of 2019).

While not at issue in that case, the Court listed "traffic offenses" and the corresponding "uniform and expeditious system for the disposition of these 'infractions'" as an example where a jury is not required by the state Constitution.

At the same time, the Legislature has shown itself cognizant of the distinction between offenses which are criminal in nature and those to which such a stigma is not attached. This awareness is reflected in RCW 46.63, decriminalizing certain traffic offenses and providing a uniform and expeditious system for the disposition of these "infractions". As long as the offender commits only an infraction, no prison sentence can be imposed. RCW 46.63.060(2)(b). If it is thought that our conclusions here today will unduly burden the courts of limited jurisdiction, that situation can undoubtedly be ameliorated by legislative "decriminalization" of those offenses which are in fact regulatory, rather than criminal in nature, and limiting the penalty accordingly. As for those offenses which carry a criminal stigma and particularly those for which a possible term of imprisonment is prescribed, the constitution requires that a jury trial be afforded unless waived.

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  • This case is 40 years old, and cites RCWs since repealed that reference a "police judge"! (Charging and determining guilt all in one? How can that be constitutional?!) Anyway, per my other comment, the statements "may demand a jury" and "no jury trial may be held" contradict each other. Are they saying in effect "you are free to ask, but the answer is always NO"? What is the point of any 'right to jury' provision in the law if it can be summarily denied in the next sentence? Mar 2, 2023 at 22:00
  • Empowering a lower court to not be required to hold a jury trial in the interest of efficiency is different than denying a citizen a stated right. Mar 2, 2023 at 22:03
  • You should probably mention 6th amendment "this is not a criminal trial" and how state courts echo it?
    – Yakk
    Mar 3, 2023 at 15:50
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It precludes a trial by jury in an alternative municipal court for a traffic infraction. The right to a jury trial is preserved in district court. RCW 3.50.020 says that

The municipal court shall have exclusive original jurisdiction over traffic infractions arising under city ordinances and exclusive original criminal jurisdiction of all violations of city ordinances duly adopted by the city and shall have original jurisdiction of all other actions brought to enforce or recover license penalties or forfeitures declared or given by such ordinances or by state statutes

which precludes taking the matter to district court in order to get a jury trial. The same municipal courts hear civil and criminal cases where the right to trial is preserved, thus this is a limit on the right of a person to demand a jury, and not a limit on the ability of the courts to hold jury trials.

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  • So to be clear, a traffic citation is NOT an "action at law"? If not, what disqualifies it from being so? Mar 2, 2023 at 2:37
  • I see, your question is the apparent contradiction between 3.50.135 and the constitution, and not how 3.50.135 applies to tickets. That will take some digging.
    – user6726
    Mar 2, 2023 at 5:19
  • Well, the “action at law” quote actually comes from 4.48.010, but any explanation that clarifies why “no jury trial may be held on a proceeding involving a traffic infraction” does NOT violate the other two unambiguous statements would be appreciated. Mar 2, 2023 at 6:18
  • @MichaelHall 4.48.010 says in full: The court shall order all or any of the issues in a civil action, whether of fact or law, or both, referred to a referee upon the written consent of the parties which is filed with the clerk. Any party shall have the right in an action at law, upon an issue of fact, to demand a trial by jury. No referee appointed under this chapter may preside over a jury trial. The written consent of the parties constitutes a waiver of the right of trial by jury by any party having the right." In context, it pertains to civil lawsuits that are not in equity only.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 2, 2023 at 9:13
  • @MichaelHall Traffic infraction cases regarding ordinance violations which are quasi-criminal are not civil actions at law in the sense of 4.48.010 which is talking about when civil cases can be referred to subordinate judges called referees who would be called "magistrates" in federal court.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 2, 2023 at 9:17

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