Jury service, a patriotic duty
Imagine being charged with a crime for which you could receive a jail sentence of two years and a fine of $5,000. You know you are not guilty.
The local paper reports that you have been charged. Some of your acquaintances now look at you funny or avoid you altogether. You spend several thousand dollars on lawyer fees and a trial is scheduled. Your lawyer subpoenas the five witnesses that support your innocence. You and the witnesses schedule time off work, and one of them even cancels a planned vacation so he can be at the jury trial.
On the morning of trial, it is rescheduled because there are not enough jurors to hear your case. Although the court summoned 80 potential jurors, only nine appeared (this has happened). You are understandably upset, as are your lawyer and your witnesses.
For months you have had this charge hanging over your head. You have anxiously awaited trial because you want to clear your name. Now you, your witnesses and your lawyer have been inconvenienced and are frustrated. The prosecutor is also frustrated because he spent the same amount of energy as your lawyer did preparing for the trial. The prosecutor’s witnesses are also upset because they too took time off work to be in court. The jurors that did appear are also frustrated because they took time from their valuable schedules to fulfill their civic duty. The judge and his clerks are also not happy. The rescheduling of the trial causes additional work for the clerks.
Another case will now be delayed because your case had to be rescheduled. Justice is delayed not only for you, but for the case that would have been tried on your rescheduled date.
In the past several years, there have been two jury trials in Lake County Court that almost did not take place as scheduled due to a lack of jurors.
To obtain a jury of six, it is necessary to summon more than six. This is because the parties to a case have the right to excuse an unlimited number of jurors if it appears that the juror could not fairly decide the case.
In addition, both sides have the right to excuse up to three jurors each without stating any reason whatsoever. This procedure is designed to make the selection of the jury as random as possible. It creates a jury that is a cross-selection of the community – one that can decide the case fairly.
In a recent case, if one more juror had been excused for cause there would not have been anyone left to take his place in the jury box. In that event, the trial would have been rescheduled. In another case, both lawyers agreed that they would give up the right to excuse three jurors each in order to get the case resolved.
I write this in hopes that citizens of Colorado will become better educated as to the need for their services, and that they will appear when summoned for this important task.
The right to a trial by jury is central to our form of government. By having a jury decide guilt or innocence, we all are protected from governmental oppression or overzealous prosecutors or potentially biased judges. In many nations, there is no right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers. In America, we are blessed in that we have the right to a court appointed lawyer, the right to remain silent, the right to open public trials, and many other rights given to anyone charged with a crime.
However, along with every right comes a duty. The right to a jury trial also creates a duty to be willing to serve on a jury. If citizens fail to fulfill their duty, the right that goes with it will eventually disappear.
In addition to the frustration to the participants caused by a lack of jurors, there is a cost to the taxpayers. It costs the state taxpayers approximately 50 cents to print and mail each juror summons. In 2002, the state spent about $475,000 sending out 875,000 summonses.
We all need to do our part to see that taxpayers’ money is not wasted. I have instituted a policy of not accepting last-minute plea bargains unless unusual circumstances exist. I have done this to cut down on the number of juror summons’ that need to be sent out. Many of my fellow judges in Colorado are instituting similar practices in order to use tax revenues and court time efficiently. Our goal is to not schedule trials that will not take place. Likewise, we want the participants to be assured that if a trial is scheduled, it will take place as scheduled. In order to accomplish this, we need the cooperation of all citizens.
There are legitimate reasons for summoned jurors to not serve. For instance, in cases of medical hardship, a call to the court can often lead to the potential juror being excused without the necessity of a court appearance. However, deciding not to show up without requesting a deferral of jury service is not acceptable and causes harm to all of us.
Perhaps one reason summoned jurors fail to appear is financial. This problem actually does not exist for most persons. Jurors are entitled to be paid regular wages, not to exceed $50 per day, unless mutually agreed upon with the employer, for the first three days of service from their employer and to compensation at the rate of $50 per day from the state if serving for more then three days.
The failure of an employer to pay normal wages makes it liable for treble damages and reasonable attorney fees incurred by the employee in enforcing the right to pay. The employer faces the same penalties, plus the issuance of court orders preventing further harassment if it harasses its employees for fulfilling their jury duty. In addition, an employer who willfully violates the law is guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor, and faces a possible fine of up to $1000 and/or a jail sentence of up to one year.
A court can issue contempt citations and impose fines or even jail sentences on summoned jurors who wrongfully fail to appear. The failure to appear is also punishable as a Class 3 misdemeanor, which could lead to a fine of up to $750 and/or a jail sentence of up to six months.
There is no doubt that serving on a jury is an inconvenience. However, the inconvenience is outweighed by the rewards of fulfilling one’s civic and patriotic duty to help keep our system of justice the fairest in the world. Remember, it could be your case that is unnecessarily delayed and your tax dollars that are wasted when trials are continued because of a lack of jurors.
Wayne Patton is a judge based in Lake County, part of the 5th Judicial District that also serves Eagle County.