Surf at Your Own Risk: For the First Time in New Jersey, Judge Holds Juror In Contempt for Internet Use During Deliberations

Last month, the Hon. Peter E. Doyne, A.J.S.C. found jury foreperson Daniel M. Kaminsky to be in criminal contempt pursuant to R. 1:10-2 for violating several orders of the trial judge that prohibited jurors from engaging in any independent research during trial as set forth in In re Kaminsky, (N.J. Sup. Ct., Bergen County, Mar. 12, 2012). After a mistrial was declared in the underlying criminal drug case and two fellow jurors reported Kaminsky’s Internet use, the Court found beyond a reasonable doubt, in the context of an Order to Show Cause hearing and related in camera proceedings, that (1) Kaminsky conducted independent research; (2) the act was contemptuous; and (3) the conduct was willful and contumacious, “with a complete disregard of the court’s authority and instructions.” Although the foreperson was subject to a maximum punishment of six months in prison, a $1,000 fine or both, he was only fined $500.

During the proceedings, the jury was repeatedly advised that Internet and other independent research was prohibited because their deliberations and the verdict should be based solely on the evidence introduced in the courtroom. They were informed of the prohibition during the voir dire process, after being sworn, before each break, and at the end of the day. Nonetheless, during the deliberation phase, the jury foreperson researched the defendant’s potential punishment on the Internet, concluding that the penalty could range from ten to twenty years. He found this result to be particularly severe because the defendant was a young man, to the point that the foreperson became physically sick and very emotional at the thought of the defendant be subjected to a long incarceration.

One of the jurors who reported the foreperson felt he had become “tainted” because his independent research concerning the potential penalty drove his deliberations and likely influenced two other jurors. The Court concluded that the foreperson had not researched the specifics of the case at issue was of no moment. Similarly, that the trial judge did not specifically “elucidate every single possible subject which a juror is prohibited from researching” was not relevant. The critical fact was that the foreperson was relying on information that was not admitted as evidence, thereby disobeying the Court’s instructions.

Judge Doyne acknowledged that in New Jersey the “sanctioning of a juror who has violated a jury instruction to refrain from independent research, generally by way of the internet, appears to be absent.” This improper research, however, was not a novel issue for this particular Judge. Click here for a prior blog post regarding Judge Doyne. Nor, as we have previously discussed, is it a unique phenomenon. Ultimately, Judge Doyne was concerned that there exists the greater problem of general juror disobedience and the failure of some jurors to “conscientiously discharge their duties.” At the same time, he made clear how much he valued the courage and honesty of the two jurors who reported the foreperson. He also emphasized that that the foreperson did not have evil or malevolent intentions. It is clear from this opinion and his prior experience that the Judge did not want to attack jurors and respects their essential functions. Rather, he recommended here, as he had before, that the State’s Model Criminal Jury Charges be revised “to better communicate the importance of obedience to the court’s instructions,” including an explanation of the “reasons for the prohibition on juror research” as well as the “possible punishments for disobedience.”

Will revising the State’s Model Criminal Jury Charges eradicate all instances of jurors conducting research on the Internet? Given the prevalence of such conduct, probably not. But as Judge Doyne noted, jurors generally “possess sufficient discipline, patience, and sense of civic duty” to obey court directives. Thus, if the importance of those directives is clearly conveyed, we will hopefully see a decline in the objectionable behavior and an accompanying improvement in the jury trial system.

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