By: Nathan Geronimo
I have written several articles about litigants running into trouble when their testimony is contradicted by their own postings on social media websites. A recent case from Sacramento illustrates a unique twist on the interplay between social media and court proceedings: the effect of juror posts on a defendant’s right to a fair trial.
Juror Number One v. Superior Court involved a juror posting comments on his Facebook wall about evidence presented at trial while the trial was in progress. Following the trial and conviction on assault charges, the Court became aware of the Facebook activity, and held a subsequent juror misconduct hearing based on Juror One’s trial posts. Juror One admitted posting comments on Facebook during the trial, but denied that the posts were about the trial or any evidence presented. For example, Juror One admitted to posting that he was so bored one day during trial that he almost fell asleep. He also invited a female juror to be his Facebook “friend.” At the conclusion of the misconduct hearing, the Court was satisfied that there had been clear misconduct, but had further questions about the degree of misconduct, and whether it had been prejudicial to the trial. Counsel for the real party in interest then issued a subpoena to Juror One for all postings by Juror One during the trial, including all emails and other electronic communications. Juror One moved to quash the subpoena as overbroad. The Court agreed that the subpoena was overbroad, but issued an order requiring Juror One to turn over all of his Facebook postings during trial to the Court for in camera review.
Juror One filed a petition for writ of prohibition seeking to bar enforcement of the Court’s order based on privacy and other grounds. The Court found that even if Juror One had a legitimate privacy interest in his Facebook posts, that interest must be balanced against the real party’s in interest constitutional right to a fair trial free from juror misconduct. In balancing these interests, the Court found that the Superior Court had made an express finding that there had been juror misconduct, that the posts themselves were the actual misconduct, and that the Superior Court had remaining questions about the degree of the misconduct and its effect on the trial. Accordingly, it had the power to compel Juror One to produce the posts. The Court further found that to the extent Juror One’s Facebook “friends” had posted something on Juror One’s wall, they had no expectation of privacy with regard to Juror One. Because the Court had the power to compel information in Juror One’s possession, posts by others in Juror One’s possession were subject to search as well. Accordingly, the Court denied Juror One’s petition. It is not clear whether the posts were later found sufficiently prejudicial to affect the assault verdict.
This case is another interesting example of the potential impact of social media on judicial proceedings. Social media is so ubiquitous, and is such a common part of people’s daily lives that it can be easy to forget that people other than the target audience may eventually see information and posts directed at just a small group of people. This potential hazard of unwanted and unanticipated viewing arises when job applicants forget to sanitize their pages as part of the application process, or when litigants choose to say something different on their pages than they say in court. Sometimes, as in this case, the simple act of posting a comment can amount to misconduct. Clearly, as social media use continues to proliferate, it will continue to impact our lives in unforeseen ways. It might be wise to keep this in mind.