When you hear the name of someone you can’t place or don’t know much about, what do you do?  Chances are, you “Google” them.  Well that is what attorneys are doing to learn more about prospective jurors too!  But they are not stopping there.  They are looking at a number of social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to learn about the profiles, likes, dislikes, friends, hobbies, biases, religion, and preferences of individuals in the jury pool.  This practice has raised a number of issues related to ethics, privacy, and responsibility.  To date, courts have taken positions ranging from banning these searches to practically requiring them.

Ironically, the use of social media to screen jurors is a key issue in current litigation where Oracle is suing Google in the Northern District of California for allegedly violating the copyright on its Java API code.  Originally, the parties wanted potential jurors to fill out a two-page questionnaire.  Then the parties would spend a day or two evaluating the questionnaires before actually selecting a jury.  But Judge Alsup was suspicious as to why it would take so long to evaluate two-page forms, so he asked the parties if they were planning to use social media to investigate potential jurors based on the information provided.  Bingo!  That is exactly what they were planning to do.  As a result, the questionnaire was scrapped, but that still left open the question of what Internet searches would be permitted during jury selection and the trial.

Judge Alsup addressed these issues in his order last week noting that the “American Bar Association issued an opinion that, within limits, it is ethical for counsel to conduct Internet searches on prospective jurors.”   But the ABA cautioned that judges may limit the scope of searches if necessary under certain circumstances.  California has not issued a rule on the ethical scope of such Internet searches, and the California State Bar has not issued an opinion.

While Judge Alsup stopped short of banning social media searches during jury selection, he expressed misgivings and implored Oracle and Google to voluntarily refrain from scouring the jurors’ social media activity before and during the trial.  Judge Alsup cited three primary arguments against the searches.  “The first reason is anchored in the danger that upon learning of counsel’s own searches directed at them, our jurors would stray from the Court’s admonition to refrain from conducting Internet searches on the lawyers and the case.”  Second, the parties may use information about the jurors to create analogies or make arguments that are targeted at specific jurors.  Judge Alsup noted that “if a search found that a juror’s favorite book is To Kill A Mockingbird, it wouldn’t be hard for counsel to construct a copyright jury argument (or a line of expert questions) based on an analogy to that work and to play upon the recent death of Harper Lee, all in an effort to ingratiate himself or herself into the heartstrings of the juror.  The same could be done with a favorite quote or with any number of other juror attitudes on free trade, innovation, politics, or history.”  Third, Judge Alsup acknowledged the need to protect the privacy of the potential jurors, who “are not celebrities or public figures.”

If Oracle and Google agree to the voluntary ban, then they will be given more time to question the potential jurors during jury selection.  If they do not agree, then each side will have to explain to the potential jurors the “specific extent to which it (including jury consultants, clients, and other agents) will use Internet searches to investigate and to monitor jurors, including specifically searches on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and so on, including the extent to which they will log onto their own social media accounts to conduct searches and the extent to which they will perform ongoing searches while the trial is underway.”  The potential jurors “will then be given a few minutes to use their mobile devices to adjust their privacy settings, if they wish.”  Then until the trial is over, each side will be permitted to view online only what it told the potential jurors it would review and nothing more.

But, is looking at someone’s public presence on social media really any different than driving by their house on a public street or asking them questions about likes and dislikes during jury selection?  It could be.  For example, do the potential jurors know that their social media posts and profiles are publicly accessible, or do they think that only their “friends” can see them?  Do they even know how to limit access to their social media accounts so that only their friends can see them?  What if their account allows friends of a friend to see their posts?  Who knows, one of the lawyers could fortuitously be a friend of a friend of a potential juror.  Also, will there be a chilling effect that causes large numbers of jurors to avoid jury service for fear that something in their social media accounts will be revealed in court?

On the other hand, failure to perform social media searches raises the risk of seating a juror who lied during voir dire or of failing to identify online juror misconduct during a trial.  For example, in Sluss v. Commonwealth, 381 S.W.3d 215, 226-227 (Ky. 2012), two jurors lied about their relationships to the victim’s mother.  A later review of their Facebook profiles revealed that both jurors were “friends” with her.  As another example, review of online posts during a trial can reveal instances where jurors are improperly talking about or researching the case.

In addition, some court have penalized parties who did not timely use searches to ferret out jury bias.  For example, after the trial in Burden v. CSX Transp., Inc., No. 08-cv-04-DRH, 2011 WL 3793664 (S.D. Ill. Aug. 24, 2011), the defendant’s online searches revealed that certain jurors failed to disclose relevant information on questionnaires and during voir dire.  But the Court said it was too late stating “defendant’s motion for a new trial based on juror dishonesty must be dismissed because the basis of defendant’s objections might have been known or discovered through the exercise of reasonable diligence.”  In another case, Johnson v. McCullough, 306 S.W.3d 551 (Mo. banc 2010), the Missouri Supreme Court suggested that competent representation in light of advances in technologies imposes a duty to conduct certain types of online searches during voir dire. Specifically, the court stated that “[l]itigants should not be allowed to wait until a verdict has been rendered to perform a Case.net search for jurors’ prior litigation history when, in many instances, the search also could have been done in the final stages of jury selection or after the jury was selected but prior to the jury being empanelled.”

Given the variation in rules across jurisdictions and judges, attorneys need to be keenly aware of the applicable rules for investigating potential and actual jurors in their cases and the risks associated with failure to perform the allowable searches.