Durango City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to repeal a law that prohibited residents facing a fine for low-level criminal offenses from requesting a jury trial.
The American Civil Liberties Union informed the city last year that denying Municipal Court defendants the right to a jury trial, even for petty offenses, violates the Colorado law. The city code previously allowed only defendants facing jail time to request a trial. City law will now allow any defendant to request a trial.
City judges and prosecutors started informing defendants in Municipal Court of their right after the city received a letter from the ACLU.
Since then, the city has not seen many requests for trials, City Attorney Dirk Nelson said.
“We sort of knew all along it wouldn’t be a huge change,” he said, in an interview.
The change brings the city ordinances in line with a Colorado Court of Appeals ruling in the case of Roalstad v. City of Lafayette, which found that those charged with petty offenses have a right to a jury trial, Nelson said.
The city’s unlawful ordinance was brought to the ACLU’s attention while representing Anthony Nocella, national director of Save the Kids, who was accused of obstructing Durango streets and parading without a permit. Former Fort Lewis College assistant professor Nocella said he did not organize or lead the protest that led to the charges. He helped with traffic and assisted police, he said.
When he demanded a jury trial, the city said he wasn’t entitled to a jury trial because the prosecutor wasn’t seeking any jail time.
However, Nocella could have faced up to 90 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine, the ACLU’s letter said. The city prosecutor was seeking a $200 fine and later dropped the case entirely because of the time and cost involved to pursue it.
Nocella said he was glad to see the city formally revise local law. Often, defendants accused of low-level crimes assume they have to plead guilty when that is not the case, he said.
“There is a better opportunity for individuals that go to the Durango court to make a better case for themselves,” he said.