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Juror Use of Internet, Social Media Poses Challenges for Courts

February 7, 2017 By Jeff King

The Internet is a veritable fountain of information, used by millions of Americans every day. In an era dominated by smart phones, social media and slew of mobile devices that give instant access to the World Wide Web, the courts are facing uphill challenges when this information technology is used by jurors. This is because jurors are not allowed to seek out information on plaintiffs, defendants, alleged wrongdoings and other case-relevant data outside of the courtroom. Panel members are instructed to refrain from conducting outside research for fear that it could introduce bias before and during deliberations.


Jurors are supposed to render a judgement based solely upon evidence that the judge deems admissible, but modern cell phones make it easier than ever to look up dates, places and people on Wikipedia or troll a defendant’s Facebook page – in an effort to make more “informed decisions.” However, such actions are causing controversy and mistrials all over the country.


Juror Internet use prompts mistrial


In 2009, the honorable William J. Zloch was compelled to declare a mistrial in a complex federal drug case in Florida. Zloch was shocked to discover that after 8 long weeks of trial, numerous jurors had been researching the case online, in direct violation of court orders. Some have dubbed the incident a “Google mistrial” and the problem has only continued to grow. Other deliberations have been reversed due to inappropriate juror use of social media platforms like Twitter to give real-time trial updates.


While jury members may believe they are helping the pursuit of justice by digging deeper, any information gleaned through Internet research may be outdated, deceptive, taken out of context, or just plain false. Olin Guy Wellborn, a University of Texas law professor, explains that the rules of evidence –which have been honed over years in the U.S. court system — ensure that all facts introduced to jury members are subject to rigorous scrutiny and evaluation by both sides.


Outside information may bias jurors


The problem posed by juror access to their cell phones and the Internet is that external information has not been vetted and may prove harmful to the case. The only way to keep jurors away from outside influences, including smart phone Internet searches, is to sequester them completely. But this process is both impractical and expensive, reserved for only a few cases.


Though impromptu Wikipedia searches, Twitter posts and other inappropriate use of technology by jurors has caused uproar, not all cases have resulted in mistrial. In the criminal case of U.S. v. Wheaton, (N.D.Ohio 2006), a juror admitted to using his laptop to research distances and locations relevant to the case, and play audio of a court-introduced exhibit. The defendant, who was being tried for intent to distribute cocaine, petitioned for a mistrial citing juror misconduct. However, the district court held that “Defendant failed to show bias or prejudice resulted from the extraneous information; thus, the interest of justice does not warrant a new trial.”


Short of a universal cell phone ban, it is highly unlikely that jurors will stop researching outside information. Only time will tell how the courts manage this escalating problem of supervising jury access to information technology.


About the Law Office of Jeffrey King


Texas criminal defense trial attorney Jeff King represents clients in both civil and criminal cases in state and federal courts. He leverages 15 years of experience successfully handling military criminal defense, and claims involving fraud, drug and property crimes. To schedule a free case evaluation, please call our Dallas law office today.

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