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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Federal Courts Address Wave of Online Jurors

This past week, the new model jury instructions about online research and social media communication by jurors were released. You can read the new instructions here. While they are quite explicit and forceful, they are weak on an important element. Research into the effectiveness of limiting jury instructions has shown that such instructions can only work if jurors are given a rational (but not condescending) explanation for why the instructions are in place. This is why instructions to disregard evidence of a lie detector test (the science is just not very reliable yet) tend to be heeded, while instructions to disregard evidence from an inappropriate search (Well, you see, we have this thing called the 4th Amendment...) tend not to be.

Other courts have fashioned instructions regarding online activity by jurors well before the Federal Judiciary got in the game and some of these earlier instructions are frankly just better, particularly with respect to explaining why information obtained from outside sources is inappropriate to use. I particularly like the combination of patient explanation and forceful admonition embedded in the New Jersey model instructions. You can find these here.

While the problem of online activity has gotten more serious and more prevalent in the past few years, mostly due to the proliferation of high speed internet access and smart phone usage in the population, the issues remain very much as they were when this problem first reared its ugly digital head. I wrote a somewhat speculative post about this topic back in 2009 and the themes I covered still resonate today.

Take a look.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Remedy for the Googling juror? Just ask!

Jurors swarm the net

Recent entry for the smallest surprise of the year award: jurors are online.

Everyone is online. So, of course, people summoned for jury duty are, too. Jury duty can be very tedious. There is a lot of sitting around waiting for things to happen. The local sports page can keep you occupied for only so long. So, whip out your iPhone or Blackberry and see what's what. Google the defendant. Google the lawyer. Google the judge! Post a tweet (Most juror posts run along the lines of "I'm stuck on jury duty and boy am I bored.").

The problem has become so prevalent that there was a front page story about it in today's New York Times. So, what are we going to do about it?

Anyone who understands psychology at all knows that the solution is NOT to take away juror's toys and slap their hands with rulers if they disobey. We know from decades of research about judicial instructions (particularly the limiting kind) that judicial admonitions without proper reasoning tends to incite "reactance" on the part of jurors. That is, when jurors' freedom to act is taken away by the court, those jurors tend to rebel and engage in the prohibited behavior more than had they not been warned in the first place. So, the key is to accompany whatever solution is chosen with careful, logical and respectful explanations to the jurors.

With these considerations in mind, there seem to be fairly straightforward solutions to the two main types of juror internet activity that concern lawyers and judges.

Juror Tweeting and Blogging

There is nothing wrong with a juror wanting to chronicle her experience on jury duty. The problem is when she posts her experiences while the trial is ongoing. Outgoing messages don't pose too great a risk of contaminating the trial, unless one is concerned that the desire to post something sensational will cause the juror to alter her behavior in the jury room. The bigger problem is the possibility that such posts will generate online responses, providing the juror with extra-legal contact with facts and opinions not in evidence. Another emerging problem is the ability of an attorney to read the posts of jurors in her own cases during the trial.

General pre-trial jury instructions and those ever-entertaining "What is a juror?" videos should be edited to make it clear to those called for jury duty that they are not permitted to post information about their experiences online until after their service has ended. These instructions should make it clear that this prohibition is consistent with the one against discussing a case with others. My educated guess is that most juror bloggers do not realize that their behavior is inappropriate. Very few people need to blog so badly that they will do so after being told by a bailiff not to. These instructions should also make it clear that jurors are, of course, permitted to write whatever they choose about their experiences after their jury service is over.

Online research by serving jurors

Six hundred years ago this would not have been a problem (not just because there were no computers). During the early period of the Anglo-American jury system, jurors were selected from the locality of an alleged crime or dispute precisely so that they could come to court with local knowledge about the events in dispute. If the jurors did not feel that they understood the case well enough, they were expected to investigate it on their own! They were to ask other villagers about what they saw or heard. There were rarely witnesses at trial, so the jurors had to be "self-informing."

Well, we have now almost come full circle. We live in a world full of people skeptical of the motives of everyone involved in the law. We don't trust the parties. We don't trust the lawyers. We don't even trust the judges to be impartial anymore. Given the instant availability of information online, it is no wonder that jurors are tempted to "fact check" their cases on Google. In a recent Florida case that resulted in a mistrial, the judge discovered that a juror had conducted unauthorized online research. He then voir dired the rest of the jurors to find out who had been exposed to what this juror had found out. To the judge's amazement and horror, he discovered that eight other jurors had also conducted research online. He had no choice but to declare a mistrial.

What should we do? Well, first of all, every single judge should pre-instruct every single jury not to conduct online research. Such an instruction must be accompanied by a well-crafted explanation of why such a rule is necessary. Second, lawyers should do their homework. If the attorneys in a case cross all their t's and dot all their i's, they can substantially reduce the temptation for jurors to look elsewhere for answers. Do some pre-trial research. Find out what is likely to matter to jurors. Find out what is likely to confuse them. Give them the answers they need.

This brings me to a procedural "innovation" that I think can mitigate the temptation for jurors to conduct unauthorized online research. More and more jurisdictions allow jurors to ask questions of witnesses during trial. Judges should not grudgingly accept this intrusion into their total control of the courtroom. Rather, judges should welcome this as an opportunity to satisfy the curiosities of jurors within the confines of the courtroom. Better to let the parties address jurors' questions during the trial than risk those jurors searching for answers elsewhere.

So, at the same time that the judge tells the jurors not to consult any outside sources regarding the trial, she should encourage them to bring any outstanding questions to her attention. The message should be "We are here to help you make the best-informed decision possible. We'll get you the answers you need."

I think that jurors who hear that message will be more likely to stay off google during trial. Afterwards.... well, that's another topic for another day.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:05 AM

    Great post. I was just chosen to be on a jury last month. There really is a lot of time spent sitting around. They made is very clear to us not to talk about the case on the computer or to anyone until the trial was over. I can't wait until the next time I get jury duty. Hopefully it will be more of an exciting case. This case was about a car accident and the most exciting part was when they brought the nurse expert witness to the stand. The case was settled in 2 days which made me sad because I really wanted to do the deliberation process. Hopefully next time! Thanks for sharing.