A recent story in TechCrunch asks why jurors aren’t supposed to use the internet during trials such as the high profile sexual discrimination lawsuit brought by Ellen Pao against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. The article rightly points out that jurors aren’t supposed to be reading news articles that could affect their opinion. But what about cases that aren’t so high profile? What about cases where nobody on either side was ever in the news?
Even in the lowest of the most low-profile cases jurors are supposed to stay off the internet. In fact, if a juror is caught by a bailiff, the judge, a lawyer, or another juror googling things about the case it will usually cause an immediate mistrial, meaning the trial will have to start over with a brand new jury.
Florida’s standard jury instructions for criminal cases say this:
You must not do any research or look up words, names, [maps], or anything else that may have anything to do with this case. This includes reading newspapers, watching television or using a computer, cell phone, the Internet, any electronic device, or any other means at all, to get information related to this case or the people and places involved in this case. This applies whether you are in the courthouse, at home, or anywhere else.
The civil case jury instructions say something similar. So why all the fuss?
To work the right way juries have to be hermetically-sealed against information about the case from any outside source. This is because we need juries to evaluate cases based only on the facts as presented to the in court, not from things they learned about the case from somewhere else. There are several reasons for this.
Trials operate under what lawyers and judges call a “code of evidence,” which is just a way of saying that the things a jury sees and hears in a trial must go be properly vetted. Granted this doesn’t always work well, and it depends on two lawyers and a judge to hash it out. But for the most part what the jury sees and hears is what has passed the test.
One of my law professors used to joke that the term “evidence code” was stupid, because do we really want people to think that we keep evidence out of court according to a secret code? But I digress. If you want to read the Florida Evidence Code it can be found here, in Chapter 90 of the Florida Statutes.
The rule against googling information about the case isn’t just restricted to looking to see if there are any news articles or other information about the people involved. It also includes looking things up on Wikipedia or any other informational website. Why? Again, we don’t want jurors reading information that comes from outside the evidentiary process and hasn’t passed the admissibility test. Also, studies show that people who google something think they’re smarter as a result. Do you really want people on a jury going to some crackpot’s website to learn about something about your case, and then, as a result, think they’re smarter than they were before?
Juries serve an important function – they weigh evidence, decide guilt or innocence, liability, and sometimes decide that even though the government has proved their case the defendant still doesn’t deserve to be convicted. To serve that function they need to keep from doing their own detective work.