Disarming Abusers and Triggering the Sixth Amendment: Are Domestic Violence Misdemeanants Guaranteed the Right to a Jury Trial?

By Julia Hatheway

Domestic violence is a global issue, but in the United States it is especially lethal.  Hundreds of women are shot and killed in the United States by intimate partners every year.  Federal and state legislatures have enacted laws that focus on the issue of domestic violence and gun violence.  In 1996, Congress passed the Lautenberg Amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968, which permanently prohibits individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from possessing firearms.  Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have also enacted laws that mirror the Lautenberg Amendment.  In many jurisdictions, misdemeanor domestic violence convictions carry a maximum prison term of six months.  Such offenses are deemed “petty” and do not entitle the accused to the procedural right to a jury trial.  Following the enactment of domestic violence misdemeanor firearm prohibitions, misdemeanants have challenged their convictions.  They have argued that the firearm prohibitions are so severe that they upgrade the offenses to serious offenses and require jury trials under the Sixth Amendment.  Most courts have found that the firearm prohibitions are not so severe that they guarantee the right to a jury trial.  However, a minority of courts have determined and some scholars argue that the firearm prohibitions are severe and therefore guarantee the right to a jury trial.

This Note examines U.S. Supreme Court jury trial precedent and scholarship on collateral consequences to consider whether firearm prohibitions upgrade domestic violence misdemeanor offenses.  Focusing on Supreme Court precedent, legislative intent, and the movement to incorporate collateral consequences into criminal procedure, this Note argues that domestic violence misdemeanants, charged with presumptively petty offenses and subject to permanent firearm prohibitions, are not guaranteed the right to a jury trial.