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Here's Your Guide To Getting Out Of Jury Duty

12 angry men juryA scene from the classic movie about jury duty, ’12 Angry Men.’

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared in Quora, in answer to the question “How do I get out of jury duty?” We have reprinted it with permission from the author, Dave Cheng.

Below is my step by step guide to avoiding / minimising jury service. I was summoned and showed up for jury duty on 10/18/11 – 10/19/11 at the 100 Centre Street courthouse in NYC. Was called into 2 trials and ducked both of them*.

Part I: Preparation

  1. Process: Read every word on your summons. Research online all the exceptions that allow you to postpone or waive your summons. Most importantly, talk to friends, neighbours, coworkers, etc. who have been summoned, or even served, as a juror to learn from their experiences and suggestions. Every jurisdiction will have different rules and procedures. Make sure you know what the loopholes are so you can take advantage of the ones that apply to your situation.
  2. Substance: A law school degree or criminal law-related job present the best background/qualifications for getting out of jury duty (more on this in Part III below), but regardless of your background, at the very least, spend 5-10 of online research to understand the concepts of jury selection (i.e., voir dire) [1] and jury nullification [2]. You could even go above and beyond and read trial strategy manuals and talk to jury selection consultants [3] so that you have a better understanding of the type of juror the lawyers on either side are looking to avoid (i.e., how you should be modelling your behaviour and appearance).

Voir dire is a strategic battle between the lawyers on both sides. Humans are imperfect creatures, and there is no such thing as a completely impartial juror. Hence, picking who decides the case can be as important as the evidence and the legal arguments. Litigators profile jurors based on things like income, race, religion, manner of dressing, profession, etc.

Voir Dire is the process by which attorneys select, or perhaps more appropriately reject, certain jurors to hear a case. [4]

“Reject” means you get to go home. You want to do everything possible to maximise your chances of rejection by the judge or one of the lawyers.

Part II: Whether or not to show up

As other answers have mentioned, this is the hard part. Unless you meet the qualifications (e.g., financial hardship, illness, already booked travel plans, currently out of the state, sole caretaker, etc.) described on the back of the summons and/or online, then you’re out of luck.

Unlike Anon, I do not suggest simply ignoring the summons. Depending on your jurisdiction, this can lead to things like contempt of court (possibly even warrant to arrest and jail time), fines, and other annoyances that far outweigh showing up if you’re able to. The chances of an actual penalty are low. Pretty hard (not to mention inconvenient) for the state to prove you actually received the summons in the mail [5], but also probably not worth the gamble.

However, if you’re even close to meeting one or more of the postponement criteria, then be aggressive about it. This means book that flight that you’ve been meaning to take. Not feeling well? Get a doctor’s note tailored to the requirements outlined in the summons or online. Even though the summons and the websites will say otherwise, I’ve been told by many people that in some jurisdictions, postponing means you’re put back in the general eligibility pool (and not just summoned again ASAP). I’ve talked to people who put in a successful postponement and then just never got rescheduled. This was also my own experience in the Boston, MA area several years ago (i.e., I asked for a postponement and never heard back).

If you postpone/reschedule, try to do so for a holiday period (e.g., mid-late December or July around the 4th when kids are out of school and families travel) when courts are less busy.

Part III: At the courthouse

First and foremost, be super polite and respectful to everyone around you. This includes courtroom staff, the personnel in the jury waiting room, the security guards, and the other jurors. They can be as important as the judge or the lawyers when it comes to minimising your chances of being selected for a trial or just your overall experience while at the courthouse. For instance, the personnel in the waiting room will have discretion over things like which jurors get to go on “break” at what time and how often in a given day. Buddying up to these people may mean you get to go on 3 or 4 bathroom breaks a day instead of just 1 or 2.

More breaks means more time away from the waiting room, which means lower chances of being called for a trial. I also found that being nice increased the chances of being let out early (e.g., at 4:30 pm when there’s almost chance of another trial calling for jurors instead of a previously mandated 5 pm) or for longer lunch breaks. They’ll also give you tips (in addition to what’s described below) on how to not get picked. These people are used to dealing with grumpy jurors who do not want to be there so any kindness you throw their way will be appreciated and rewarded.

Next, if you’re actually called to a court for trial selection, these are the best ways to ensure you’re not selected for the trial:

  1. Scheduling: So you didn’t have a conflict or illness that was good enough to get you out of the summons, however, you may still have a scheduling inconvenience, particularly if the trial is estimated to drag on. In the second trial I was called for, the judge told us at the beginning that the case would take 3-4 weeks. When she next asked who had a scheduling issue with that, well over 60% of the 50+ potential jurors raised their hands. Each one talked privately with her, and I did not see a single person come back into the room afterwards. Basically you want to make them feel bad. Emphasise how crucial and distressful the missed time will be to you. Good reasons include: if you work solely or mostly on commission or are part of a small business and being out 3-4 weeks will kill your company, if you were planning a trip anytime during the expected length of the trial, needing to care for a loved one or pet and not having anyone who can babysit, etc.
  2. Language Barrier / Communication Issues (“act really stupid”): If English is not your first language and you’re not able to understand the trial, you’re saved. Same applies if you have hearing problems or difficulty communicating with the other jurors for any reason. If you ask a lot of dumbass questions (e.g., “what’s ‘reasonable doubt’ mean? … wait, I still don’t get it, can you explain again? … wait I thought, the standard was ‘preponderance of the evidence’ … oh, so wait, what’s the difference between a criminal and a civil trial? … huh? explain that again?”), the judge will also be more likely to not select you over worries that you’ll be too much hassle during the trial. If you decide to go this route, you can prepare in advance by dressing like a slob or mentally incapacitated person
  3. Legal Knowledge / Undue Influence (“act really smart”): The reason they don’t like picking lawyers to be jurors are because they’re afraid a lawyer, due to having a higher perceived knowledge of the law, will unduly influence the opinions of her peers or will tamper with the process in some other way [See Law: If I'm a juror on a trial and I have a lot of money, can I hire a lawyer to advise me on how to think about the case and my decision?] If the judge suspects that other jurors will just listen to you and ignore their own views of the case because of your force of personality or specialised knowledge/education, then she’ll nix you. This is also part of the reason Mike Rayzman suggesting that you dress nicely and seem busy is not a bad idea (it also makes your time seem more important, in line w/ 1 above). Aside from sounding intelligent, well-spoken, and persuasive, you can also drop hints that you have specific legal knowledge of things like jury nullification (which jurors are not supposed to know about). A judge or lawyer who explains jury nullification to a jury generally results in a mistrial [2 again]. It’s a power that the jury has but one that they are not supposed to be aware of.
  4. Knowledge / Familiarity with the case: Demonstration of other, non-legal types of knowledge can also save you. When they read the names of the parties and the witnesses at the beginning, pay close attention because if you’re acquainted with any of them, you’re disqualified (e.g., if your husband used to work for the company that’s being sued or if you used to be neighbours with one of the witnesses). Knowledge of the area (e.g., if you used to work or live there) could also help, partly because it raises the chances of a conflict (turns out you know someone involved) as the case progresses but also partly because it decreases the chances of you being impartial (e.g., “I’ve been to that store, and I think it’s an outrage it got robbed. Someone’s gonna pay for this”) [6]. Awareness of media coverage can also be a disqualifying factor (e.g., “I read about that store getting robbed, and I agree with the NYTimes, the perp should be locked up for life!”). So can personal experiences that are similar to the facts of the case (e.g., “I used to work behind the counter in a store just like that one and was in constant fear of a robbery just like that one.”)
  5. Partiality: In addition to the judge disqualifying you for possible bias, both sides get peremptory challenges [7] whereby they can eliminate potential jurors. I suggest reviewing the links in [3] and other online sources for the factors involved here, but the gist is that you want to seem extreme in some way. If you come off as very anti-establishment or libertarian, then the prosecution in a criminal trial may worry about your willingness to enforce the law. If you seem like a very strict, rules-oriented person, then the defence might fear an overeagerness to punish.

Hope this helped, good luck!

*I should add that I don’t necessarily advocate avoiding jury duty. It’s not a bad experience at all, and for many people, probably more interesting and easier than their everyday jobs. The reason I didn’t want to be there 10/18/11 – 10/19/11 was cause my deal was supposed to sign. I’d sacrificed a few weekends on it and wanted to be there when it signed. When I was at jury duty, I was back in the office 4:30 pm to past midnight both days. Luckily signing ended up on 10/20/11 in the late evening.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voi…

[2] Jury nullification is when jurors reach a verdict that is inconsistent with the law, as explained/instructed by the judge. E.g. they find a criminal defendant not guilty, even though they unanimously found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, because they disagree with the law.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jur….

The 1895 decision in Sparf v. U.S. written by Justice John Marshall Harlan held 5 to 4 that a trial judge has no responsibility to inform the jury of the right to nullify laws. This decision, often cited, has led to a common practice by United States judges to penalise anyone who attempts to present a nullification argument to jurors and to declare a mistrial if such argument has been presented to them. In some states, jurors are likely to be struck from the panel during voir dire if they will not agree to accept as correct the rulings and instructions of the law as provided by the judge.

[3] Just a few casual examples:
http://www.synchronicsgroup.com/…
http://www.litigationps.com/liti…
http://www.trialgraphix.com/serv…
http://keenetrial.com/blog/2010/…

[4] http://2b1inc.com/grand-voir-dir…

[5] http://www.askmen.com/money/how_…

If the authorities want to penalise you, they’ll have to prove that you received the letter in the first place — which is done by signing a registered letter. As long as you don’t sign it, you’re likely in the clear. Those who don’t return the form might include people who were on vacation, have moved, or simply didn’t pick up their mail. So if anyone wants to penalise you, be sure to show ‘em your tan. By returning the letter, your name is placed in future random selection processes for potential jurors.

The 2 page guide in that link is a helpful supplement to my answer as well.

[6] In one of the trials I was called for, I explained to the judge that I lived in the area where the mugging took place for 3 years and had friends who had been mugged in that area. When she said, “and you think that makes you biased?” my response was: “even though I don’t think I read the newspaper articles that covered this specific incident, I do follow such coverage closely and I think it’s a damn shame that neighbourhood has deteriorated so badly. Honestly, I think a conviction, regardless of whether this guy did it, would be a big help in sending a warning to potential muggers in this area. I just get frustrated when I read about this kind of thing in that neighbourhood. I sure wish I could do something about it.” She sent me packing after that.

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Per…

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