In the Like of duty: Jurors facing fines for Facebooking in court

© Dominick Reuter
Serving on a jury is one of the most begrudged civic duties Americans perform. In the age of social media, however, jurors looking to spice up the proceedings with Facebook posts on the case are now facing harsher penalties than being stuck on jury duty.

As in many states, California requires that selected jurors do not discuss the trial with anyone and only consider evidence that is collected from the courts. Nonetheless, some social media-addicted jurors are trying the patience of the courts by researching the case through Google or talking about the on-going cases on social media.

In 2011, California enacted a law making improper electronic and wireless communication or research by a juror punishable by contempt, but holding a juror in contempt is a difficult process. It can gum up the judicial process so much that many judges are not encouraged to do it.

Historically, contempt has been something judges are told, 'Don't do,'" J. Richard Couzens, a retired judge from California’s Placer County, told KCBS, adding “You have to follow so many rules to institute a contempt process.

As it stands, a juror using their experience as fodder for Facebook “Likes” will typically only result in a dismissal, KCBS reported. However, current legislation backed by state court officials would allow judges in some counties to penalize jurors with a $1,500 fine for violating the social media and Internet usage policies.

The gravity of the situation is described by Thaddeus Hoffmeister of the University of Dayton School of Law. He wrote about a case where a juror researched a defendant that was standing trial against sexual assault charges. The juror discovered that the defendant had a past conviction for child molestation and shared this information with other jurors. When the trial judge discovered this, he was forced to declare a mistrial and fined the juror $1,200 to cover the cost the courts had paid the jury for their two days of deliberation.

Legislation in California hopes to hold jurors accountable for their actions in the courtroom as well as outside of it. The author of the legislation, Assemblyman Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park) explained that the usage of social media “[is] disruptive of the judicial process, and there ought to be a fairly simple and convenient way for a judge to sanction a juror based on the order that the judge has given,” KCBS reported.

Some feel that penalizing social media addicts could create a divide between juries and judges. Brian Walsh, a judge in the Silicon Valley county of Santa Clara, told KCBS, “You want to present the jurors’ obligations to serve as an inviting opportunity to participate in the democratic process. One could consider it counterproductive to be laying out all the penalties a juror can incur if they blow it.