Under ORS 161.566(1), Oregon prosecutors may treat most misdemeanors as Class A violations. If they choose to do so, the charge is tried in court without a jury and the prosecution has the burden of proving guilt by a preponderance of the evidence. ORS 151.076(1) and (2). If the defendant is convicted, the court may impose a fine of up to the maximum amount that could have been imposed for the class of misdemeanor that was reduced to a violation. ORS 161.566(2)(b).
Tawanna D. Fuller was charged with two misdemeanor theft offenses stemming from a July 2010 shoplifting incident. When the state elected to prosecute the charges as violations under ORS 161.566(1), Fuller moved for a jury trial and to have her guilt proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The trial court denied the motion and found her guilty of the charges using a preponderance of the evidence standard. Although the court could have imposed a fine of $6,250 on one conviction and $1,250 on the other, it imposed a $600 fine – $300 for each conviction.
The Oregon Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that the trial court had improperly denied Fuller’s motion for a jury trial and reasonable doubt determination because treating her misdemeanor charges “as violations pursuant to ORS 161.566 retains too many characteristics of a criminal prosecution to deny defendant the protections of a jury trial and an evidentiary standard of proof of the offenses beyond a reasonable doubt.” See: State v. Fuller, 252 Ore.App. 391, 287 P.3d 1263 (Or. Ct. App. 2012).
Prosecutors immediately bemoaned the decision, noting that in an effort to save money, several Oregon counties with strained budgets – including Multnomah, Marion and Lane counties – downgraded many misdemeanor charges to violations.
Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis said the downgrading practice saved staff time and benefited the defendant by eliminating the possibility of a criminal conviction. He suggested, however, that the ruling may negatively impact his county’s use of the practice.
“There’s no incentive for the district attorneys to reduce [misdemeanor charges] if you’re going to have to go to trial with a defense attorney, if you have to use all the same resources,” Marquis noted.
The Oregon Supreme Court granted the state’s petition for writ of certiorari and affirmed the decision of the appellate court on October 3, 2013. The Supreme Court found “that the legislature may decriminalize minor offenses by enacting a system to prosecute violations, but, in doing so, may not deny an accused the right to a jury trial ... if the proceeding retains attributes of a ‘criminal prosecution.’” See: State v. Fuller, 354 Ore. 295, 311 P.3d 861 (Or. 2013). The Court reached the same conclusion in another case decided the same day as its ruling in Fuller, which involved similar issues. See: State v. Benoit, 354 Ore. 302, 311 P.3d 874 (Or. 2013).
Additional source: The Oregonian
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