Published 4:50 pm, Thursday, January 16, 2014
California’s cash-strapped courts are asking state lawmakers to shorten jury selection by reducing each side’s challenges to prospective jurors, a proposal that unites prosecutors and defense lawyers in opposition.
SB794 by Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, would lower the number of peremptory challenges – removals of potential jurors without stating a reason – from 10 to five for the prosecution and defense in trials for misdemeanor crimes punishable by three months to a year in jail. For lesser misdemeanors, the challenges would be reduced from six to five.
Each side would still be entitled to 10 challenges in trials for felonies punishable by a year or more in prison, and to 20 for crimes punishable by death or life. The limits do not apply to prospective jurors removed by judges for bias.
The Senate Public Safety Committee approved SB794 on a 5-1 vote Tuesday and sent it to the Senate floor, where it faces a Jan. 31 deadline for passage.
Judges are promoting SB794 as a money-saver while the courts are coping with $1.2 billion in state budget cuts from 2008 to 2012. The funding reductions have forced cutbacks in staffing and service hours and closures of more than 50 courtrooms.
The California Judges Association, SB794’s sponsor, says it would save at least $1.2 million a year for the courts and $30 million or more for prospective jurors, their employers and their communities by reducing the number of jurors called for service and the time they spend in court. About 1.5 million Californians report for jury duty each year.
With 10 juror challenges per side, a maximum allowed only by California and two other states, “it takes longer to pick a jury, ties up resources and ties up members of the community who would otherwise be at work,” Mike Belote, the association’s lobbyist, said Thursday. He said judges don’t believe lower limits would lead to more biased jurors or unfair trials.
Criminal defense and prosecution lawyers hold a different view.
“Peremptory challenges are there to weed out individuals who may not admit to being biased … but who may harbor some bias that would affect the outcome,” said Ignacio Hernandez, lobbyist for California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a defense lawyers’ group. Reducing those challenges would increase the risk of bias and would also lead to appeals that cost time and money, he said.
Marty Vranicar of the California District Attorneys Association voiced similar objections. “This is one of the few times both the defense bar and the prosecution are on the same page,” he said.
Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org