Social Media Creates Challenges for Choosing and Keeping Jury Members

Social Media Creates Challenges for Choosing and Keeping Jury Members

The law sometimes can't keep up with changes in technology. Trying to apply the law to the relatively new technology of social media has proven to be a challenge for judges and lawyers in many ways.

We've commented here before about how parties will try to use an opponent's comments or postings on social media against them. However, social media doesn't just have legal implications for the people involved in lawsuits. It can create turmoil over people called for jury duty too.

Judges in Florida now warn jurors not to use social media to discuss cases they are hearing with family, friends, or the public. Jurors are also warned not to use social media or the internet to do their own investigations about the facts. That's because evidence available from these sources are not screened for accuracy. It can be misleading or dead wrong, and can lead even a well-intentioned juror astray.

Media reports are now trickling in about jurors who have caused mistrials because they failed to resist the temptation to do these things. Mistrials usually result in a "do over" of entire trials, and they are enormously costly to the court system and parties involved. Jurors who break these rules and abort a trial in progress may find themselves in hot water with a judge too. Jurors can actually be fined or held in contempt for misbehaving that way.

Off-the-record investigations are not the only potential problem involving jurors. Evidence of juror bias can raise its head through social media as well. In fact, some lawyers have begun researching social media posts of people chosen for jury duty to find evidence of partiality. Lawyers trying a police brutality case might look for a potential juror's comments about the events in Ferguson, Missouri. A lawyer defending an oil company might check for comments about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or similar events.

There is nothing wrong with this type of research. Both parties to a legal dispute are entitled to jurors who will not be influenced by bias or prejudice. Potential jurors may find it a little creepy that lawyers are reading their old posts or tweets, but they can hardly complain if they've chosen to announce their views in a public forum.

Of course, jurors have the right to their own opinions. They also have rights of free expression when it comes to their opinions. No one could fault a potential jury member for expressing views on an issue long before they get a jury summons.

The one thing potential jurors must do, however, is tell the truth about their biases and views when asked. A jury candidate who denies bias can cause enormous disruption if investigators find statements in cyberspace revealing bias afterward. At a time when more and more of people's comments leave an electronic paper trail, it's more important than ever that people be straight about their views. Candor is just as important for potential jurors as it is for people testifying on the witness stand.

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