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Court Lays Down Law on Jury Internet Use
A new rule proposed by San Francisco Superior Court would remind potential jurors not to blog, Tweet or conduct Internet research about cases.
A need for the rule change, which is open for public comment starting today, became clear to the court during a jury selection episode on a weeks-long criminal trial in late June, when an entire panel of 600 jurors had to be excused.
"The court continues to make all efforts possible to recognize the value of jurors' time and to not needlessly use up or expend jury panels," Presiding Judge James McBride said.
During voir dire on that case in late June, one potential juror's responses made it sound as though he knew quite a bit about the case, prompting Judge Donald Mitchell and the lawyers to talk with him in chambers, said Patricia Kilkenny, deputy jury commissioner for the court. The man said he had done Internet research, and when the judge questioned him about it, he replied that he hadn't been ordered not to do so.
When the rest of the potential jurors were questioned, several raised their hands to acknowledge they had also done some Internet investigation on the case, Kilkenny said. Among them, one hadn't remembered being told not to do outside research, while another didn't understand that the admonishment included research on the Internet.
In researching the problem, Mitchell found that though the jurors had been verbally admonished, they hadn't gotten a cover sheet with a written admonishment attached to their questionnaires, Kilkenny said. Currently, juror questionnaires typically include cover sheets, but their content is up to the judge and attorneys. Cover sheets vary and don't always include the written admonishment about discussing or researching the case.
The defense then filed a motion to quash the venire, and when Mitchell denied the motion, they filed a writ at the 1st District Court of Appeal.
The appeal court indicated it would be willing to stay the trial for briefing, but the issue became moot when Mitchell struck the panel himself, the docket shows.
"From a practical standpoint, Judge Mitchell was going to lose those jurors either way," Kilkenny said.
So Mitchell excused the jurors and started voir dire all over again.
The proposed rule change makes the requirement for the cover letter consistent across courtrooms, so that all potential jurors getting questionnaires are warned against Googling cases or using social networking to investigate or talk about them.
The court hasn't had a problem with jurors blogging or Tweeting in the past couple of years, Kilkenny said, but she added that there's a lot of buzz in the national jury press about how to handle jurors' use of social networking Web sites.
"It seemed an appropriate place to put [the social networking aspect] so we are consistent as a court," Kilkenny said.
A draft of the civil questionnaire cover sheet the court provided to The Recorder reads: "You may not do research about any issues involved in the case. You may not blog, Tweet, or use the Internet to obtain or share information."
The rule would go into effect Jan. 1. Comments on the proposed change must be submitted in writing to the court's chief executive officer, Gordon Park-Li, by Oct. 23.