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Bill would prohibit sending no-show jurors to jail

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Sen. Bobby PowellTwo South Florida lawmakers want to prohibit judges from sentencing no-show jurors to jail in the wake of a contempt-of-court case that received national attention.

Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, is sponsoring SB 1590. Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Riviera Beach, filed the companion, HB 1125.

Both bills would prohibit judges from imposing jail sentences on prospective jurors who fail to attend court without a sufficient excuse. Judges would be permitted to impose a fine of up to $100.

An aide said Powell filed the legislation after meeting with a local man who Powell believes was treated too harshly for oversleeping and missing jury duty.

“We don’t take missing jury duty lightly and we don’t think anybody should,” said legislative assistant Kersti Myles. “But given the totality of the circumstances, imprisonment is too harsh.”

Last year, a 15th Circuit judge imposed a 10-day jail sentence on the 21-year-old West Palm Beach man who was selected to serve in a civil trial but failed to return the next day.

The man’s absence caused a 45-minute trial delay.

At a contempt hearing the next month, the man apologized and acknowledged that he overslept and went to work without notifying the court.

In addition to the jail sentence, the judge ordered the man to serve a year of probation, write a letter of apology, and pay $223 in court costs — but he later vacated the additional penalties.

Powell publicly demanded that the judge be removed from office and filed a complaint with the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

Myles said Powell’s office recently received a notice that the complaint was dismissed after the JQC determined there was no violation.

“We believe they followed the letter of the law and we will now focus our efforts on the bill,” Myles said.

The Associated Press reported in 2017 that the problem of no-show jurors appears to be growing.

According to the National Center for State Courts, “FTA” jurors — for failure to appear — account for an average of 9% of all summonses.

But rates range from 1% to more than 50%, depending on the jurisdiction.

Four of every five court jurisdictions conduct some type of follow-up program for FTA jurors, according to the study.

“The only approaches found to produce measurable reductions in FTA rates are those that issue a second summons to the offending juror,” wrote Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the Center for Jury Studies.

“Controlling for jurisdiction size, courts that had implemented a second summons program had FTA rates that were 24% to 46% lower than those that had not,” Hannaford-Agor said.

Citing another study, Hannaford-Agor said the single biggest contributing factor in FTA rates is a juror’s fear of “significant consequences” for failing to comply.

Neither bill has received a committee hearing. The 60-day session convenes January 14.

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