Busy-Body Legislating: California’s New Law on Tweeting Jurors

Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes in a suit smiling with arms crossed

Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes, author of California’s latest silly law (Photo: ASMDC)

A new California law signed by Governor Jerry Brown threatens jurors with jail time if they tweet, blog, or otherwise use the internet to communicate about their trial. The bill is the handiwork of Democratic San Fernando Valley Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes.

I’ve looked at the text of the law. At best, it’s silly. At worst, it’s hurtful.

The first thing the law does put an additional requirement on judges when they make their admonishments to the jury. Under Code of Civil Procedure §611, judges already have to explain that jurors are prohibited from talking about, researching, or disseminating information about the trial. The new law requires that judges “clearly explain,” that this admonishment “applies to all forms of electronic and wireless communication.”

Ooooh. Notice how cleverly the law was drafted with the use of the word “clearly”. If judges were merely required to “explain” this to jurors, there would be a huge loophole allowing judges to undermine the spirit of the law by issuing their explanation in an unclear manner.

To drop the sarcasm for a second, this strikes me as pure busy-body lawmaking. There’s no need to micromanage courtroom procedure through statute. Judges are completely capable of fine-tuning admonishments on their own. If this part of the law does anything, it seems to me it might create an argument for throwing out otherwise perfectly good jury verdicts on appeal. If a judge with decades of experience makes the mistake of issuing a standard admonishment, not complying with the technicality of the new law, there now appears to be a basis in statute for tossing the verdict. And even if the judge does the explanation, disappointed litigants can still quibble with the judge’s words, arguing that the issue wasn’t explained “clearly.”

Then there’s the aspect of the new law that’s been given the press coverage: Jail time for tweeting jurors.

Here’s what the new law adds to the list of misdemeanor offenses listed in Code of Civil Procedure §1209:

Willful disobedience by a juror of a court admonishment related to the prohibition on any form of communication or research about the case, including all forms of electronic or wireless communication or research.

Note that before Fuente’s new law, §1209 already made the following a misdemeanor:

When summoned as a juror in a court, neglecting to attend or serve as such, or improperly conversing with a party to an action, to be tried at such court, or with any other person, in relation to the merits of such action, or receiving a communication from a party or other person in respect to it, without immediately disclosing the same to the court[.]

and this:

[a]ny … unlawful interference with the process or proceedings.

The current law seems to cover everything of substance. The only thing the new provision does that I can see is make it a jailable offense to use the internet in such a way that is neither improper nor interfering. I guess I don’t understand why we would want to jail jurors under such circumstances.

Jurors are already the lowliest souls on the schedule of recipients of rights and liberties. Prisoners have more legal safeguards for their rights than jurors. Without committing or even being suspected of a crime, jurors are swept off the streets and detained against their will, their freedoms of expression and association instantly curtailed. Moreover, jurors can made to serve for months on end and can be sequestered from the rest of the world – all without due process. Is it really necessary to slap them around with threats of jail?

I poked around on Felipe Fuentes’s website. I don’t see any press release he’s issued about this regrettably successful project. Maybe he’s not too proud of it.

Last year, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill similar to this one because he considered current warnings to jurors to be adequate. He had some common sense. I’m sorry to see it gone missing in Sacramento now.

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