In an age where smartphones, social media and the Internet have led to improved connectivity, California legislators are looking for ways to prevent jurors from violating the rules. Judges issue strict instructions to jurors that they must not perform any Internet research regarding the case they are deciding. Moreover, jurors are told in no uncertain terms that they are prohibited from discussing the case on social media.
These warnings are often to no avail as an increasing number of jurors are being caught making social media posts or doing online research in violation of the orders. Jurors who are caught breaking the rules may be held in contempt of court. Typically, this means that misbehaving jurors are dismissed without much in the way of consequences. When a juror is dismissed, there is a good chance that a mistrial will be declared, leading to spiraling court costs and hundreds of wasted hours.
The new measure, which is currently before the California Assembly, is the first of its kind in the nation. If it passes, it would give judges the ability to immediately issue a citation to jurors who break the rules about Internet research and social media postings. The new process would be much easier and more efficient than the process for finding a juror in contempt. Just as importantly, it would empower the judge to levy a fine of up to $1,500.
Internet and social media use by jurors has been an increasing problem in recent years. Across the country, juror infractions have led to verdicts being overturned and mistrials being declared. Louisiana State University's Press Law and Democracy Project kept a close eye on such events until recently. That's because these violations used to be relatively rare. Now, they are so common that participants decided the effort was "more trouble than it was worth."
This legislation seems to have broad-based support and appears to be on the way to the governor's desk for approval. If this happens, it seems inevitable that other states will soon consider taking similar measures in an effort to crack down on wayward jurors.