California Clamps Down on Jurors Using Social Media
Jurors in California may want to leave their smartphones at home thanks to a new law passed earlier this year that bans jurors from accessing Twitter, Facebook or going online to receive or provide information about the trial. The new rule was enacted as a way to curb jurors from compromising a case. Legal experts say this rule was inevitable and will likely be adopted by other jurisdictions.
“Non-sequestered jurors are exposed to more information in today’s world,” says Mitch Jackson, a partner at Jackson & Wilson. “In the old days, all they needed to do was avoid listening to the radio, reading the newspaper or watching a couple of channels on the television. Today, jurors are exposed to an incredible amount of information simply via the homepage on their computer.”
Strides in digital technology have made it tremendously easier for jurors to access information. Smartphones enable jurors to read the news of the day in the palm of their hands. Meanwhile, social networking platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, make jurors more prone to stumble upon outside information as followers and friends post links and chatter about issues that may be relevant to the case.
“In limited cases, I think [texting and social media] have played a role in jurors making decisions not based on the admissible evidence, but instead based on speculation and innuendo. And that’s not a good thing,” Jackson says.
If a juror is caught relaying information or receiving information over the Internet, it could potentially compromise the whole trial, resulting in a mistrial. In fact, there are a number of incidents in which the use of Internet technology has resulted in actions against the offending juror or called the integrity of the trial into question.
- In a California case called People v. McNeely, a jury foreman discussed the jury’s deliberations on his blog.
- In a 2008 case, a Superior Court judge presiding over a murder trial held a juror in contempt of court after he posted a picture of the weapon to his blog. No penalty was imposed.
- In the case People v. Ortiz, a juror was found to have blogged detailed information about the case during the trial; however, the defendant’s request for a new trial was denied.
- In a 2011 incident, a jury foreman in a criminal trial posted updates to Facebook. The trial court judge ordered the foreman to make the posts accessible for review. The foreman appealed, and now the case is pending.
The question remains whether the new law will actually result in jurors changing their behavior. After all, texting and using social media have become second nature to many. Legal experts believe that because the new law does carry actual penalties—a juror can be held in contempt of court —people are more likely to obey and remain logged off.
“There will always be jury misconduct, even with a rule in place,” says John Conway, a lawyer in New York City. “You will find somebody that will go out of their way either because they can’t put it down or they want to provide insight to the media. But I think the new rule will prevent most jurors who really do want to avoid potentially tainting a trial.”
Jackson agrees. He thinks adding explicit parameters around the use of the Internet and social media as part of jury instructions provides clear guidance to jurors and will result in a decrease in jurors compromising cases.
“When jurors are read the admonition at the beginning, during and end of a trial, it will be very clear as to what is not allowed,” Jackson says. “I also believe that when jurors are advised of the very clear consequences of being punished, the proper tone is set for their proper participation as sworn jurors and maximum compliance with the new law.”
California is not the only state to have had issues with jurors and Internet technology. Just last year, a Florida man was removed from a jury after he sent a defendant a Facebook friend request because he found her attractive. Jackson believes that the California law may inspire other jurisdictions to adopt similar rules.
“I would expect most jurisdictions across the country to amend their existing jury instructions and laws to include a more detailed explanation as to what specific electronic communications are prohibited,” Jackson says “Jurors need to know that just because it’s easy for them to quickly check their smartphone doesn’t mean it is a smart thing to do.”