A jury duty notice is rarely received with great enthusiasm. It can feel like a burden, requiring time away from work or family. It interrupts your routine. However, jury duty is really your opportunity to oversee the work of the executive and judicial branches of your government.
In addition to ruling on the facts of a case, your job involves evaluating the work of everyone involved. Jurors assess the conduct of law enforcement, the defendant, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the justice system itself.
When jury service causes a hardship, such as interference with child care responsibilities, the court can excuse a juror. In such circumstances, jurors must follow the court-prescribed process. Simply failing to appear for jury duty is not a good idea. Not showing up for jury duty may result in serious penalties.
The Jury Selection Process
Many people do not understand the jury system in the United States. Not all schools provide a class in civic duty. Some citizens never get the call to serve. Others find a jury summons in their mailbox multiple times. Courts may tap jurors for service in criminal and civil cases alike. For purposes of this article, the focus will be on criminal cases.
The right to a jury trial in a criminal case represents a key part of the American criminal justice system. The right applies to any offense for which conviction may result in a loss of liberty or the imposition of jail time. The right to a jury trial appears in the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It guarantees a criminal defendant has the option to have an impartial jury of their peers weigh and decide their guilt or innocence.
Whether in federal or state court, the juror selection process begins with compiling an eligible juror list. In many jurisdictions, this list may be compiled annually. The list may come from the voter registration records of the county or court district that will hear the case. It may also come from a combined list of registered voters and people with driver's licenses or state IDs from that area.
In most courts, the selection of the names of prospective jurors comes from a random drawing from the eligible list. For example, say a defendant requests a jury trial on a felony case in the county. The court will use an eligible list that contains the registered voters for county residents. The court will then issue a jury summons for these potential jurors.
The state and federal court systems utilize two types of juries: petit trial juries and grand juries. They serve different functions. Courts task a petit jury with deciding a defendant's fate at the end of a trial. But a grand jury's role comes earlier, helping a prosecutor decide whether to file charges at all. Whereas the grand jury weighs in on whether to indict a suspect, the petit jury usually determines guilt or innocence.
The 12-person panel most people imagine when they think about a typical trial is a petit jury. A grand jury is typically larger, with 16 to 23 members on a typical federal grand jury. The court determines the size of the jury pool it needs based on what type of service or what kind of case it will hear.
For example, the court may call a large jury pool to seat a grand jury. A grand jury hears evidence over a period of time from law enforcement investigations. It deliberates and decides whether there is probable cause to indict and issue felony charges in a variety of cases.
In the alternative, the court may need to seat a petit jury. A petit jury hears and decides one criminal case. In a felony case, a petit jury has 12 jurors who must reach a unanimous verdict. At the trial's end, the petit jury engages in jury deliberations to make findings of "guilty" or "not guilty."
The court issues the jury summons to order the prospective jurors to appear for selection. The jury summons is a court order. Once jurors appear, they may complete a questionnaire to aid in the selection process. In a petit jury situation, the court may call several jurors to appear before the attorneys and the judge for questioning. Through the "voir dire" process, a final set of jurors will be selected to hear the case.
If a prospective juror does not appear after the initial jury summons, the court may issue a second summons.
In most jurisdictions, the court will set out minimum eligibility standards for jury service. These will include:
- Being at least 18 years old
- Being a U.S. citizen and a resident of the county, city, or court district that will hear the case(s)
- Not having a legal disability for service (certain criminal convictions)
Although it's not an incentive for jury service, selected jurors often receive payment for each day they serve. The compensation will vary based on the court. In most states, the daily rate might cover lunch, parking, or transportation. It is not a wage.
Penalties for Skipping Jury Service
Courts need jurors to function. Thus, jury commissioners expect prospective jurors to take the call to service seriously. Courts may choose not to pursue sanctions or penalties against jurors who "no show" upon an initial summons, especially when they have enough jurors to proceed.
Yet courts have discretion in this area. Penalties for skipping jury duty service are set by state or federal law. The penalty a person faces for skipping jury duty depends on where their jury duty service takes place.
State Court Jury Duty
If you ignore a jury duty summons for a hearing at a state court, the court may receive a Failure to Appear Notice or a Delinquency Notice from the jury commissioner. The court may treat the matter as a contempt of court and schedule what's called a "show cause hearing" or otherwise follow state law on the matter.
If you fail to appear at a show cause hearing, the court may issue a warrant for your arrest. At the hearing, if the court finds no valid excuse for your failure to appear or serve, you could face the following penalties:
- Jail time
- Community service
- A civil contempt or misdemeanor conviction on your record
Federal Court Jury Duty
In federal court, if you fail to report for jury duty and are not excused by the court, the U.S. Marshal Service may serve you with an Order to Show Cause. You must appear before a U.S. magistrate judge to explain why you should not be held in contempt of the Jury Service and Selection Act. If the court rules against you, it may issue contempt penalties. This may include:
- Fines up to $1,000
- Not more than three days in prison
- An order to perform community service
- A civil contempt conviction on your record
Lying about Jury Service Excuse
Lying to the court is a crime. It's easy to believe that telling a little lie to get out of jury duty is no big deal. However, if you're caught, the government can prosecute you for perjury. In some instances, committing perjury results in a felony conviction. Penalties can include up to five years in prison.
If you're caught lying, the court may also hold you in contempt. Unlike perjury, the court can act quickly in cases of direct contempt. The moment the judge holds you in contempt, you may go directly to jail.
How to Lawfully Avoid Jury Service
Generally speaking, you can always seek a postponement of your jury service for reasons outside your control. Examples of such reasons are illness, death or sickness of a family member, disability, undue hardship, or caregiving duties.
If you want to be excused from jury service, it's best to get the court's permission before the date you're summoned to appear. Certain situations may permit an exemption from service. Otherwise, you must go to court and ask to be excused.
If you remain unsure of the protocol, visit the court's website, and look for an FAQ section about jury service. The court will usually explain how to ask for a postponement or exemption before the date you report.
Reasons for having jury service excused or postponed may include:
- Being an active-duty member of the U.S. Armed Forces
- Being an active-duty firefighter or police officer
- Being over the age of 70 (or another age set by the court)
- Having served on a jury in the past two years
- Attending college or certain occupational classes
- Being the primary caregiver to young children
- A recent death in the immediate family
- A mental or physical condition that limits your ability to pay attention
- That serving would cause a physical or financial hardship. Examples may include having no means of private or public transportation; having to travel an excessive distance; or having difficulty sitting for long periods.
Facing Charges for Not Showing Up to Jury Duty? Get Legal Help
Jury duty always seems to come at inconvenient times. Maybe you thought no one would notice if you didn't report, and now you've learned that not showing up for jury duty can result in serious penalties. If you face contempt charges or need legal advice, consider talking with an experienced criminal defense attorney who can help negotiate a just outcome for you.