In a recent case, a defendant was indicted and charged with burglary in the first, third, and fourth degree, plus theft of property over $1,000 and malicious destruction of property in connection with burglary of a house. At the end of the bench trial, the court determinded the defendant guilty of every count. He was sentenced to 15 years incarceration.
Before the bench trial, the defense attorney mentioned that he and his client had discussed the likelihood of a bench trial versus a jury trial. The client stated he wanted to be tried by the judge, not a jury. The court explained that if even one of the 12 jurors found he was not guilty, the defendant couldn’t be convicted.
The court also explained that a judge had to be certain by more than a reasonable doubt, but the primary difference was that it was one individual as opposed to 12 jurors. The judge asked if the defendant understood and the defendant claimed to understand. The judge found the jury waiver was free and voluntary.
After the defendant’s conviction, he appealed challenging the trial judge’s acceptance of his waiver of a jury trial. An intermediate appellate court determined that due to his attorney not objecting at the point of the jury trial waiver, the issue wasn’t preserved. It stated that if the issue had been preserved, it was likely that the court would have held the trial judge had sufficiently complied with Rule 4-246.
The defendant petitioned the appellate court to review the case. The court explained that a trial judge is obligated to follow Rule 4-246(b). This rule requires the judge to inquire into a criminal defendant’s waiver of the right to a trial by jury. The judge must engage in the process and declare a finding about whether the defendant had made the waiver in a manner that was knowing and voluntary.
The trial judge must find that the criminal defendant’s waiver was both knowing and voluntary. There are no special words that need to be stated, but the judge has to make an specific declaration on the record, even if it does so with synonyms for words other than “knowingly” or “voluntarily.”
In this case, the trial judge had found that the defendant made a “free and voluntary” choice of a court trial. The appellate court explained that “free” and “voluntary” mean the same thing, but the trial judge did not acknowledge the defendant’s waiver was made “knowingly.” It found that the trial court had not complied entirely with Rule 4-246(b). It ruled that addressing half or any other incomplete portion of the mandatory announcement was not sufficient.
It further explained that the exclusively appropriate sanction for a failure to follow the Rule was reversal. It explained that violating the Rule was not just a technicality and could not be a mere harmless error. It also explained that it could not be a “limited remand” to the trial court.
The purpose underlying the rule was to ensure the defendant really did make a waiver that was knowing and voluntary when the waiver was made, so it wasn’t good enough to have the waiver considered by the trial court again months after the fact. The appellate court reversed.
If you are arrested or charged with a crime, you should consult with an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney. We will develop the best strategy we can to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.
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