By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Legislation billed as an effort to make jury service less onerous in California, but which critics fear could harm a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial, advanced last week in the state Senate.
SB 794, authored by Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, would reduce the number of times attorneys in misdemeanor criminal trials could kick potential jurors off the panel without having to state a reason.
Advocates say limiting such “peremptory challenges” would reduce the number of people summoned for jury duty, shorten trials and save money.
“The biggest complaint we get in misdemeanor trials is why does it take so long to pick a jury?” Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau said.
The legislation grew out of an effort on the part of the state’s court executives and presiding judges to identify ways of streamlining services and reducing costs in response to crippling budget cuts to California’s judicial system.
Chouteau, who helped lead the effort, on Tuesday testified in Sacramento in support of SB 794, which advanced out of the Senate’s Public Safety Committee on a 4-1 vote.
Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, the committee chairwoman, insisted that the legislation be amended so that it would expire in two years as a condition of her support.
Chouteau said the legislation would be a two-year “experiment” to see if it “improved things.”
The bill proposes to limit the number of peremptory challenges in misdemeanor cases to five each for the prosecution and the defense. Currently, it’s 10 per side. The changes would put California in line with other Western states.
Courts and judges support the bill, which is opposed by the associations representing California’s district attorneys and public defenders.
Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said the legislation would not make courts run more efficiently. She said Sonoma County “does a great job” managing jury duty now with its automated phone service and other programs.
She also raised concerns about the legislation’s effect on a defendant’s due process rights.
“Misdemeanor penalties can stay with an individual for life,” she said. “When you look at reducing the number of peremptory challenges to speed up that process, I just don’t agree with that approach.”
Chouteau, however, said the issue is the number of people who have to be summoned for jury duty.
He said 50 to 60 percent of potential jurors are dismissed for cause after they claim a hardship. Up to 20 people can be let go using peremptory challenges.
Then there are the 12 people and three alternates who ultimately are selected to hear the case.
“The savings in the number of jurors called is greatly magnified if you can reduce the peremptories by half,” Chouteau said.
Jose Guillen, executive officer of Sonoma County courts, disagreed that the legislation would impede a criminal defendant’s rights to a fair trial.
He said studies have shown that the more peremptory challenges there are, the greater the risk attorneys will use them for no other reason than their own biases, a practice Guillen said amounts to “profiling.”
Evans, a civil attorney, made the case that her bill would diversify the jury pool and allow more people to serve by speeding up the trial process.
“We don’t want to make it where only wealthy people can serve on a jury,” she said.
Critics argue that reducing the number of peremptory challenges could make trials less fair by limiting opportunities for attorneys to boot people who might be biased toward one side or the other.
The California Public Defenders Association labeled SB 794 an “assault” on the effective selection of jurors, stating in its rebuttal to the bill that peremptory challenges are necessary “in doubtful situations where a fuller examination of a prospective juror might have” revealed reasons to include or disqualify that person.
An analysis of the bill written by Senate consultants also warns that reducing the number of peremptory challenges available to the prosecution could increase the likelihood of deadlocked juries and lead to “costly retrials.”
However, a 2010 study in George Mason Law Review concluded that a greater number of peremptory challenges favors prosecutors and increases the likelihood that a defendant will be convicted.
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or email@example.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.