Twelve Unnecessary Men: The Case for Eliminating Jury Trials in Drunk Driving Cases

48 Pages Posted: 11 Feb 2010

Date Written: February 10, 2010


Over the last few decades, states have imposed tougher punishments on drunk drivers. This article argues that increasing punishments is counter-productive. If legislatures are seeking to hold guilty offenders accountable and deter drunk driving generally, they should keep punishments low and instead abolish the right to jury trials. Under the petty offense doctrine, the Supreme Court has authorized states to abolish jury trials when defendants face a maximum sentence of six months' incarceration. Social science evidence has long demonstrated that judges are more likely to convict than juries, particularly in drunk driving cases. And researchers have also found that the certainty of punishment, not the severity of punishment, is the key factor in maximizing deterrence. Thus, by keeping maximum sentences for most drunk driving offenders at six months or less, states can abolish jury trials, thereby raising conviction rates and improving general deterrence. Additionally, bench trials will be far more efficient because the greater certainty of conviction will give defendants an incentive to plead guilty rather than taking their cases to trial. When trials do occur they will be much faster because there will be no need to select juries, and lawyers will have to present far less background information to already knowledgeable judges. At present, only a handful of states have eliminated jury trials for drunk drivers. This article outlines the specific steps that states should take to abolish jury trials and thereby increase convictions, maximize general deterrence, and more efficiently handle one of the most common crimes in the United States.

Keywords: drunk driving, DWI, petty offense, certainty, severity, deterrence, bench trial, jury trial, efficiency

Suggested Citation

Gershowitz, Adam M., Twelve Unnecessary Men: The Case for Eliminating Jury Trials in Drunk Driving Cases (February 10, 2010). U of Houston Law Center No. 2010-A-5, Available at SSRN: or

Adam M. Gershowitz (Contact Author)

William & Mary Law School ( email )

South Henry Street
P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
United States

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