Court to Rule on Motorist’s Right to Twelve-Person Jury

December 2004

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has agreed to review a case that raises the issue of whether or not motorists are entitled to a twelve-person jury when challenging traffic tickets.

Fitchburg resident, Ken McGrew, received a speeding ticket in Madison in May of 2002. McGrew, who felt the ticket was in error, pleaded not guilty and requested a jury trial. Any party in a civil or criminal trial, in Wisconsin, has a constitutional right to a jury trial with 12 jurors, except, according to state law, traffic ticket defendants who are limited to a six-person jury. The Supreme Court will now decide if ticket recipients are entitled to the same rights other defendants receive, at least when it comes to the number of jurors in a traffic ticket trial.

While traffic ticket fines, surcharges, assessments, penalties, and related sanctions have increased dramatically, the due process rights of defendants challenging traffic citations have been systematically reduced through court cases and legislative edicts. These actions seem intended to discourage citizens who would otherwise challenge traffic citations. Those defendants who press on and demand “their day in court,” soon discover a system at odds with their notion of a fair trial where the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. The reality is that the defendant is presumed guilty and his or her attempts to prove otherwise are often futile, regardless of the weakness, flaws, or lack of credibility of the government’s evidence.

The one bulwark protecting some semblance of justice in Wisconsin courts is the constitutional right to a jury trial, and in Wisconsin, a jury means a panel of 12 persons. Nevertheless, the State Legislature passed a law stating that a traffic ticket defendant is only entitled to a six-person jury. The motives included “saving money” and the knowledge that smaller juries are more likely to favor the prosecution. This isn’t just an abstract technical argument. There are real and substantial consequences that result from arbitrarily reducing the number of persons necessary to constitute a legal jury.

McGrew’s case highlights this latter issue. McGrew contends he was convicted on the basis of evidence that was scientifically impossible. A larger jury with 12 persons would have had more depth of knowledge and experience and therefore a greater chance of recognizing the flaws and inconsistencies in the state’s evidence. McGrew claims he mathematically and objectively proved the state’s claims were impossible. However, because the smaller panel of jurors either lacked the ability to understand the arguments, or just chose to ignore the inconsistencies in the state’s evidence, he was found guilty. McGrew contends this would have been much less likely with a 12-person jury.

It’s anticipated that the Supreme Court will render a decision sometime this winter.