Indecent Use of Social Media by Jurors

So much has been said and written about social media, yet we never seem to run out of topics. Such has been its impact on our lives that we cannot escape its clutches and impact – even if we tried. It seems every aspect of life has been influenced by Facebook, Twitter or one of their brethren.

One might think that jury duty would be one area where social media would have no relevance. Wrong. The latest in a long line of controversies to hit social media has been its improper use by the jurors. The internet seems to be the preferred avenue for research about a case for the jurors. If you want to do a background check on the case, you are most likely to check Google rather than any traditional media. The problem here is that the court is unable to monitor the use of the internet by jurors (or attorneys for that matter) and banning its use is simply not possible.

The main issue arises when the jurors tend to use the social media platform to discuss the case or express their opinions, something which they are obviously not allowed to do. The misconduct carried on can have an adverse effect on the case which will result in prejudice and bias creeping over the judgment. There have been cases where jurors have “friended” parties related to the case via Facebook and others where they’ve even disclosed their verdict publicly. This is extremely unethical behavior and the chances of a fair trial are considered compromised.

A relevant case for this type of situation was when the court had to subpoena the Facebook profile of a jury forewoman. The juror had made some comments via the social media platform from which the defendant’s attorney figured out that she had learned about a past conviction of the accused during a rape trial in Tampa, Florida. Not good.

In a gang-related case in California, an attorney believed that a juror was being influenced by his online friends. The court heeded the request of the attorney and ordered a subpoena on the juror’s Facebook profile.

What followed was a circus! Facebook did not oblige the subpoena and cited a relevant clause of the Stored Communications Act. Facebook said that it could not release the information unless the owner of the profile, in this case the jury foreman, allowed them to do so. The court ordered the juror to give Facebook the go-ahead.

However, the juror instead filed a federal lawsuit against the defendants, the judge and Facebook, saying that he was being forced to disclose personal information under the threat of being charged with contempt of court. The wait is still on for the verdict in this case.

Is social media getting out of hand? There are many ideas which the legal system is contemplating, such as building an online portal exclusively for use by jurors, among other ideas. Whatever direction(s) the courts decide to go, it’s clear that getting rid of social media altogether is not an option.

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