In the Mercer County Courthouse in Trenton, N.J., John Saunders, a jury manager, spends his weekdays shepherding potential jurors. Much of what he tells them regards the paraphernalia of 21st century life: cell phones, tablets and laptops. These are OK to use in the waiting room, he tells them. “We realize life does not stop.”
But in the courtroom, it’s all phones off. Laptops and iPads stay with Saunders, and jurors are given a tag to reclaim their item. “Unlike the airport, when you return, your item will be there, and no baggage charge guaranteed,” he says.
While jurors were once warned not to discuss the cases they were hearing with others, warnings to jurors in today’s social media age have become much more explicit. Increasingly, jurors are hearing about what they should not do with the devices that connect them to the world.
In New Jersey, judges like Travis Francis, the assignment judge in Middlesex County, have adopted model instructions to jurors that sound like something out of a Best Buy catalog.
“Do not use any electronic device,” he tells them, “such as the telephone, cell or smartphone, Blackberry, iPhone, PDA computer, the Internet, email, any text or instant message service, any Internet chat room, blog or website such as Facebook, Myspace, YouTube or Twitter to communicate to anyone any information about the case.”
Doing any research or investigating of the case on your own is also forbidden here, as is “visiting the scene” virtually. “Jurors are specifically instructed not to use Google Earth or any other similar utility to visit the scene of an accident or crime,” Francis says.
Putting Modern Communication On Hold
These lengthy lists of digital don’ts grow out of a conflict in modern life: Jury duty requires a juror to limit his or her communications with others. To many 21st century Americans, those limits might feel like solitary confinement.
Paula Hannaford-Agor, who directs of the Center for Juries Studies in Williamsburg, Va., says in an age when everyone’s used to instant digital information — finding a restaurant, paying a bill, checking a bank balance — “it’s very difficult and really counterintuitive for many jurors coming in to be told all of a sudden, ‘You can’t do this.’ “
But how often does a juror actually visit a crime scene on Google Earth, tweet about the case she’s on or look up the filings? Hannaford-Agor says a 2010 Reuters study found that only 90 verdicts were challenged on the basis of juror digital disobedience between 1999 and 2010. But, she notes, those are the only reported cases or instances that were admitted to. Now, Hannaford-Agor says she typically hears about one case a week in which jurors looked up legal terms on the Web or shared their jury duty experience on social media.
Those kinds of communications have sparked various new rules and procedures across the country. In New Jersey, one case involving jury deliberations in a 2011 Bergen County drug trial made a big impact on judges all over the state, including Superior Court Judge Robert Billmeier, who hears criminal cases in Trenton.
“It was actually the foreperson of the jury who got on the Internet despite the judge’s instructions not to,” Billmeier says. He found information about a minimum prison term that he thought would pertain to the defendant if he was found guilty. “As it turned out, his research was inaccurate,” Billmeier says, but that information led to a deadlocked jury and a mistrial. The juror was fined $500.
Where’s The Line?
Billmeier has since adopted a juror pledge. Jurors must agree to not engage in any online research or communication pertaining to their trial — and jurors must sign under penalty of perjury. That, he says, “brings home to them how important this instruction is not to get on the Internet, not to use social media, to follow the court’s instructions — or there could be adverse consequences.”
But what about a tweet that reveals nothing more than what one might tell a spouse, like, “I’m on a jury in a drug case,” for example?
The problem, Billmeier says, is a tweet is an invitation to a conversation. And while such a tweet may not necessarily get someone dismissed or get a verdict overturned, the lines between unacceptable and acceptable tweets are likely to get less clear, says Hannaford-Agor of the Center for Juries Studies.
“We’re starting to hear, begrudgingly, a lot more discussion about under what circumstances is a juror’s conduct of going online or posting something actually harmful error,” she says.
Meaning that, with social media so integral to our lives, there are some circumstances of jurors going digital that society may simply have to accept as harmless.