Juries and Social Media: Why Can’t I Google, Tweet, Facebook or Blog about the Trial?
(With thanks to Retired Judge Dennis M. Sweeney for his contributions to this article, and to the Maryland State Bar Association Bar Journal’s in-depth article on this subject.)
Instant electronic communications and social media are everywhere, which is amazing considering how new they are.
Google was officially launched in 1998, only 13 years ago. It is the most used search engine on the Web and gets several hundred million queries each day.
Facebook was created in 2005, and today has almost 500 million members worldwide.
Twitter didn’t exist until five years ago. Now, its estimated 195 million users send out more than 60 million tweets each day.
Forty years ago, there were no cell phones. Now, there are more than 290 million in the United States, and about one in five households have gotten rid of their land line in favor of going exclusively mobile.
But the new technology, which encourages us to stay constantly connected to friends, families and online acquaintances, does not always mesh with jury rules, which include:
Don’t talk about a case with anyone, even fellow jurors, until you are told by the judge to do so.
Don’t talk to your friends, family or anyone else about the case or anyone involved in the case.
If you have a question, get your information from official court sources, not from anywhere else.
New technology tempts jurors to ignore the rules and text or post their feelings, opinions and details about the trial they are sitting on, or get answers and information the way they do in their everyday life—by searching the Internet or asking friends on social media sites.
But serving on a jury is not everyday life. It’s special, with special rules to make sure that trials are fair for all and carried out according to laws that govern all of us.
Draft Jury Instructions About Social Media and Electronic Communications
Contributed by Retired Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, Howard County Circuit Court, who remarks: “I think that every jury should get instructions about social media and electronic communications right at the start of the trial. After studying proposals for these kinds of instructions from other jurisdictions, I’ve drafted the following instructions”:
You as jurors must decide this case based solely on the evidence presented in this courtroom. The evidence you will consider for this case has been reviewed by the parties and the court, and is the evidence that is relevant to this case and the issues you must decide.
You must not conduct on your own any research or investigation about the case or the individuals involved in it. Any information you obtain outside the courtroom could be misleading, inaccurate, or incomplete. Relying on this information is unfair because the parties would not have the opportunity to refute, explain or correct it.
You may not consult any dictionaries or reference materials. You should not search the Internet, website, blogs, or any other source for information about the case or the persons involved in the case.
Places or locations may be mentioned, but you should not visit any place or location related to the case. You should also not seek any information about the place or location on the Internet or through websites such as MapQuest or Google Maps or Goggle Earth.
Until you retire to deliberate and decide this case, you may not discuss this case with anyone, even your fellow jurors. You should not express any opinion about the case or talk about the case with anyone, including courtroom personnel, spectators or anyone participating in the trial.
Most, if not all, of you use cell phones, BlackBerries, smart phones, tablets or computers to communicate with family, friends, co-workers or others. During this trial, you cannot communicate to anyone any information about this case, or your opinions or views about it or the individuals participating in it by any method or means.
You may also be involved in social media or networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, YouTube or Twitter, and be accustomed to frequently communicating your views, observations or opinions on these sites. During this trial, you must not use these sites to communicate anything about this case or the individuals participating in it.
Judge Sweeney concludes: “Jurors should be reminded of these instructions frequently during the trial, before any recess and particularly when the jury separates at the end of the day. The Maryland State Bar Association’s Maryland Pattern Jury Instruction Committee, of which I am a member, is currently drafting instructions on this subject.”