In both civil and criminal trials in California, defendants generally have the right to a jury trial. It is a longstanding rule in a jury trial that jurors must make their decisions based solely on what they hear in court and must not discuss the case outside of court; however, this rule is becoming more of a challenge in recent years in light of the explosion of social media, explains a personal injury lawyer in the state.
When a defendant has the right to a trial by a jury of his or her peers, he or she has more than just the right to have this case heard by a panel of jurors. The defendant also has the right to have the case heard by jurors who are impartial and who will make their decisions based on the merits of the case alone. This is the reason why the voir dire (jury selection) process exists and why people who are biased are excused for cause. It is also why jurors are forbidden from talking about the case or from getting information from outside sources.
Unfortunately, with the explosion of social media, the exchange of information is easier than ever before. Jurors using Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and a whole host of other social media networking websites may (sometimes inadvertently) receive information from “friends” or others they know through various online mediums, especially if the case is a newsworthy or a controversial one. This information shared on social networking websites isn’t discriminate-when the Tweet goes out, for example, it goes out to all followers and if one of those followers happens to be a juror, that tweeted message is going to be seen.
In addition, jurors themselves may also be so used to sharing their every move through their social network that they do not consider the consequences of sharing in the context of the trial. The Wall Street Journal gave several examples of situations where jurors shared too much online, resulting in disastrous consequences. For instance, the Supreme Court in the state of Arkansas threw out a murder conviction and ordered a new trial be conducted because one of the jurors on the case had “tweeted” about it.
In two other incidents, jurors were punished for “friending” people involved in the case they were hearing. One of these jurors, a Florida man, was held in contempt of court and sentenced to three days of incarceration. The other, a Texas man, friended a plaintiff in a car accident case and had to do two days of community service as a result.
Stories like this are likely to become even more common as more and more people become used to the always-connected, over-sharing world created by social networks. Judges throughout California and the rest of the country will need to take a firm stance and ensure that all members of the jury fully know and understand the consequences of breaking the code of silence and doing something that could potentially violate the plaintiff or defendant’s right to a fair trial by jury.
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