The Petty Offense Exception in New York: The Accused Prostitute’s Right to a Jury Trial


The sixth amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a trial “by an impartial jury” to all criminal defendants.’ “Crime” under the sixth amendment has been held not to include petty offenses.2 Those accused of petty offenses therefore do not enjoy the constitutional right to a jury trial. What constitutes a petty offense, however, has been debated for some time.

By 1970, the Supreme Court had articulated three factors for determining whether an offense is petty or serious: the treatment of the offense at common law, s the nature of the offense, and the punishment of the offense. Not until 1970, however, did the Court decide the maximum prison sentence for a petty offense.

In 1970, New York City was the only jurisdiction in the country which insisted that offenses punishable by more than six months may be petty. The city, burdened with overcrowded courts, was adverse to granting jury trials to those facing possible prison sentences of less than one year. In 1970, however, the Supreme Court forced New York to grant jury trials to those accused of offenses punishable by more than six months in prison. New York conformed to the Court’s command in N. Y. Criminal Procedure Law § 340.

Despite the city’s historic reluctance to grant jury trials, a New York City Criminal Court ruled in People v. Link that it is unconstitutional to deny a jury trial to an accused prostitute. Although the maximum prison sentence in New York City for a convicted prostitute is three months, the Criminal Court found the offense sufficiently serious to warrant a jury trial. The New York Supreme Court disagreed with the lower court, and overruled the Criminal Court’s decision.

Although Link retains no precedential value, the Criminal Court’s criticism of New York’s petty offense exception cannot be dismissed. This Note will explore the petty offense exception and evaluate the Link court’s criticism of the exception. First, the Note will place the petty offense exception in its historical context by examining the Supreme Court’s definition of “petty offense.” It will then focus on New York’s prostitution law and consider whether the law passes the test established by the Supreme Court. Finally, it will consider whether there is a fairer definition of “petty offense.”

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