Many people have concerns that social media, while popular for millions, can cause problems when used inappropriately. But do these technologies pose a risk to the fairness of our legal system? Some people think they do, and a California legislator has proposed addressing the problem by banning all forms of social media use by jurors during a trial and fining them if they violate that prohibition.
An Important Part of Many Lives
It seems like everyone is on social media—Facebook has 1.6 billion users, Instagram boasts over 400 million, and Twitter claims more than 300 million. And that only counts the active monthly users, not all of those who have accounts. Around 2.2 billion total users worldwide have social media accounts (including 78 percent of all Americans).
When it comes to reckless device use, the biggest concern is the risk it poses on the roadways, as more and more distracted driving accidents are blamed on device use while behind the wheel. The idea that jurors might compromise the fairness of court proceedings by connecting to social media or interacting with others during a trial is also now a real concern.
Does Social Media Hinder Justice or Help It?
The social media knife can cut both ways, though. Earlier this year, a California judge issued a ban on Internet searches of potential jurors as part of the jury screening process. In that case, a long-running dispute between Oracle and Google, the judge worried that the tactic was a way for both parties to make invasive searches into juror backgrounds and recognized it as a potentially serious violation of privacy. The reporting on that ruling noted that more than one quarter of judges already warn attorneys in their courtrooms to avoid social media searches of jurors.
Still, the judge’s request in this case may run counter to how most cases are conducted. Since 2014, the American Bar Association has approved of allowing attorneys to review and monitor jurors’ social media accounts, both to uncover bias prior to jury selection and to determine if jurors are violating court instructions during a trial.
The issue is complicated. When citizens serve on a jury, it’s normal for them to be told not to discuss a case and to avoid all news coverage pertaining to it. It’s not unheard of for a judge to sequester a jury to ensure that their decisions aren’t influenced by the world outside the courtroom. Since at least 2010, the official jury instructions for Indiana courts have told jurors not to use social media to discuss a case. So far, however, no one here has gone as far as the California proposal.
Cases Retried, Verdicts Overturned
Jurors already face restrictions in California: A 2011 law allows a court to hold jurors in contempt for improper electronic communication or research during a trial. It’s not clear that any charges have been filed, but juries have been dismissed outright when members violated this restriction, such as when a juror was discovered to have been browsing the LinkedIn profile of a prosecuting attorney. In another case, a fraud conviction was overturned on appeal after it was shown that a juror had researched the case outside the courtroom.
Committed to Best Practices
At Wilson Kehoe Winingham, our staff stays current on the issues that affect our clients’ cases. Social media use—whether by a party to the case, the attorneys involved, the jurors, or even the judge—is an important new wrinkle that we’re staying on top of. Many cases around the country have involved photos, videos, texts, browsing records, and other information gleaned from electronic devices which would have been impossible to collect just a few years ago. This kind of evidence has made its way into car and truck accidents, nursing home abuse claims, and numerous other personal injury cases.
Whether the decision involves seeking out social media records to discover the truth of a matter or blocking access to social media to maintain impartiality, the attorneys at Wilson Kehoe Winingham do what’s best to make sure your case gets the fair hearing you’re entitled to.