Monday, February 22, 2010

@JuryBox: Turn off Twitter, kthx.

If you use the popular micro-blogging site Twitter, you probably already know its potential for broadcasting the minutest details of life to a wide audience. Inevitably, some of those details might be better left unsaid: Just last week, reality-television star Kim Kardashian made headlines by inadvertently "outing" a federal air marshal (whose identities and locations are meant to be classified) with whom she chatted on a flight. This news coincided with the release of Please Rob Me, an aggregator of location-based Twitter updates which advertise when a user is not at home. (Sound excessively paranoid? A 2009 burglary in Arizona was reportedly linked to the homeowner’s Twitter vacation update.)

But the legal profession has been grappling with Twitter and similar technologies for much longer, especially when it comes to jury trials. While jurors have long been instructed not to conduct outside research on the details of a case, nor to discuss the case with anyone except other members of the jury during deliberations, the rise of social networking media and mobile devices has resulted in a number of mistrials and allegations of juror misconduct, especially over the last year. (See a December 2009 Baltimore Sun article for a round-up.)

Earlier this month, the Judicial Conference of the United States released a set of model jury instructions for federal district courts, which address potential social-networking snafus more explicitly:
You may not use any electronic device or media, such as a telephone, cell phone, smart phone, iPhone, Blackberry or computer; the internet, any internet service, or any text or instant messaging service; or any internet chat room, blog, or website such as Facebook, My Space, LinkedIn, YouTube or Twitter, to communicate to anyone any information about this case or to conduct any research about this case until I accept your verdict.
Only time will tell if the more explicit new federal model jury instructions will curb juror misbehavior online, and of course state courts will likely adopt their own instructions. A recent Twitter search for "jury duty" mostly turned up users who were either dreading a jury duty summons, waiting in the courtroom to be called, or celebrating their dismissal from the jury pool. But even a cursory scan of the tweets turned up some minor case details, as well as the amusing lament of a reluctant juror who has watched too much TV: "this [expletive] is not like law & order @ all!" (At least, not until Law & Order rips a social-networking mistrial from the headlines.)

To learn more about model jury instructions for a particular jurisdiction, search the libraries' online catalog for the subject keywords "jury instructions and [jurisdiction]"; e.g. jury instructions and north carolina.