Outside Research Threatens Integrity of the Civil Court System
The idea that jurors should consider only the evidence presented during the trial is as old as the American justice system. Only the judge is allowed to decide what evidence is admissible, since outside sources might be inaccurate, biased, and/or irrelevant.
But in our age of instant communication with family, friends, and the news media, these outside influences can easily influence the internal deliberations of jurors.
Is there a solution?
Internet Information Overload
Technology has created a quick and easy resource for information. The Internet is a vast source of information. Most people use their smart phones to Google, text, and tweet. It’s second nature for almost all of us.
The Problem When Jurors Use Their Phones During Trials
Trials are being hijacked by independent research conducted by the jury panel. The problem is so ubiquitous that a new term — a Google mistrial — has been coined. Here are just a few examples of how cell phones have disrupted court proceedings:
- A California court reversed a fraud conviction against the CEO of an investment firm after a juror researched a witness.
- An Arkansas court threw out a death row inmate’s murder conviction in part because of tweets.
- A New Jersey appeals court dismissed a heroin possession conviction after a juror found the criminal history of the defendant.
Juror Tried This Sneaky Trick During a Tarrant County Trial
Several years ago, a young man in a car wreck trial tried to “friend” the defendant on Facebook. After the woman told her lawyer, the judge dismissed the man and sentenced him to two days of community service. The man claimed he didn’t realize who the defendant was and got angry — and blasted the court system on (where else?) Facebook.
The Present System Can’t Work
All Texas judges read instructions that prohibit the jury panel from talking to the lawyers, witnesses — and even each other — about the case or performing inspections or research.
Some judges require jurors to leave their cell phones with the bailiff during testimony. But there is no way to enforce that ban during lunches, breaks, and especially at night. Using Web MD to research medical issues, Google Earth to inspect an intersection, or LinkedIn to check out the parties, attorneys, or witnesses is probably tempting.
A Possible Solution
Perhaps Texas legislators should consider what a few states have done to try to solve the problem. California authorized judges five years ago to hold a juror in contempt and impose a fine for Internet use during trial. But due to its ineffectiveness, a new law may raise the fine to $1,500.
Sound draconian? Texas already fines a person who fails to show for jury duty up to $1,000, and someone who falsely claims an exemption up to $100. And a speeding ticket can cost $200. We should also get jurors to swear when they take their oath and when the verdict is returned that they have not performed independent research.
The balancing act is tricky. People are going to use their computers. But a judge has to make sure that the trial was conducted fairly. A mistrial is hard for all parties, especially plaintiffs in personal injury lawsuits. Hopefully these solutions will prevent this from happening.