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Bill would reduce challenges to prospective jurors

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Prosecutors and defense attorneys would be able to reject fewer jurors in misdemeanor trials under a bill passed Tuesday by the California state Senate.

Each side currently can use up to 10 peremptory challenges, which allow attorneys to dismiss prospective jurors without stating a specific reason. The bill, sent to the Assembly on a 21-11 vote, would cut that number in half.

Such challenges are used “because you don't like the way somebody looked at you, or you have a hunch,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, herself a former prosecutor who supports the bill. “You can challenge for no good reason at all.”

No other state allows so many challenges, said Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa. While New York and New Jersey also allow up to 10 challenges by the defense and prosecution, she said only California allows 10 for each defendant. That can result in dozens of challenges if there are multiple defendants, she said, dragging out jury selection longer than the misdemeanor trial itself.

Evans' SB794, which would not apply to generally longer felony trials that involve more serious charges, would add two peremptory challenges for each additional defendant.

She and Jackson said the bill would save the courts money, streamline misdemeanor trials and result in more diverse juries. Proponents also argued that fewer challenges would improve potential jurors' experience because fewer would wait for hours only to be dismissed.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said the change is projected to save the courts $1.2 million each year but said there are better ways to save money. He voted against the bill.

Organizations representing both district attorneys and public defenders oppose the legislation, arguing that peremptory challenges could simply be replaced with challenges for cause with no net savings in time or money.

The California Public Defenders Association calls it “yet another assault on the effective selection of jurors by counsel” that “would work to further erode fairness in our jury system.”

The bill was sought by the California Judges Association.

“For many, many years, this Legislature and as well as two governors have really been pressuring the courts to do business in different ways to save money,” Evans said. “This bill is a very small change in the way that the courts administer justice, and yet it reveals the inherent challenges in asking the courts to do things differently _ because it is a change, and that's very difficult for people.”

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