Thursday, September 23, 2010

We, The Jury, Are Leaving Now

First off, there's this:

That is unquestionably the most bad-ass vending machine I've ever seen. Two full rows of energy drink and an entire row of Mountain Dew.

The vending machine was located on the second floor of Municipal Court, where I went for jury duty yesterday. And in spite of its contents, I did not notice any city employees appearing more jittery than usual. I didn't see any coffee, either--with that vending machine, coffee would be entirely redundant.

So I spent about two hours at the Court yesterday, and sort of managed to blow up the jury selection process during voir dire, which, um, resulted in a mistrial.

There's a story behind all of that, of course, so here you go.

In Texas, a defendant can still request a jury trial in a misdemeanor case (where only fines are involved), and the Municipal Court handles these cases. The vast majority of these cases never go to trial, even ones that are scheduled for trial--yesterday, 19 out of 20 cases either pled out or were dropped. So there was only one case to try.

There were 25 of us in the jury selection pool. I was juror number 20, so I was in exceptionally good shape, since only six jurors were needed. Golden.

We went into the jury room and received some preliminary details about the case. The defendant was from El Salvador, had been in the United States for 10 years on a green card, and had a commercial driver's license to drive trucks. He also had a family here. He didn't speak much English, and needed a translator to understand the proceedings. He could, however, read enough English to pass the licensing exam for his commercial driving license.

The defendant was contesting a speeding ticket.

The prosecutor explained that these kinds of cases were very simple, usually involving just the testimony of the ticketing officer and the defendant. The only question he really asked of the jury was whether anyone had received a ticket in the last five years (about half of us had), and whether there had been any feelings on our part that the ticket had been unjustified. 

Then the defense attorney stood up, and started asking more pointed questions. In particular, she asked whether anyone in the jury pool felt the defendant should have learned English in the 10 years he spent in the United States. About half the jury pool raise their hands.

Personally, I couldn't care less. The guy had been working here for 10 years, and what he did on his own time was his own damn business.

Then the defense attorney explained the points system for commercial licenses (which I was already vaguely familiar with). Basically, when you have a commercial license (called a CDL), any violation, even if it occurs in a non-commercial vehicle, adds a certain number of "points."

Those points, in certain situations, can cost you your commercial license for varying periods of time.

The defense attorney asked a question about prior offenses and whether that would prejudice us, and I raised my hand. "I would have a serious difficulty voting for a conviction if this offense is going to cost him his ability to make a living," I said.

Immediately, the other half of the jury pool (who hadn't raised their hands about the English question) raised their hands. I think there were even a few double dippers.

I didn't say that as precisely as I wanted. What I specifically wanted to say was that if this guy was driving a private vehicle and going (for example) 38 in a 30 MPH zone, I wasn't going to break him off from his livelihood. That's an entirely borderline speeding ticket in this state, and the vast majority of drivers here go that fast or faster (I don't, but then I drive like a 70+ year old Tim Conway).

Yes, I know--that's jury nullification--but hey, they said they wanted honesty. I wasn't lying, or trying to do anything devious. They had already told us that the trial would only last a couple of hours, at most, so we weren't going to be there very long, regardless.

The defense attorney finished asking questions, and we went back to an adjoining room while they hashed things out (we could hear raised voices at times through the wall). After about 30 minutes, they called us back in. "Sometimes, in the judicial process, it turns out that there aren't enough jurors in the pool to seat the jury," he said. "In this case, only three jurors could be seated, and the result is a mistrial."

Oops. Didn't see that coming.

I'm guessing what happened is that the prosecuting attorney used all his peremptory challenges on people like me, while the defense attorney used her challenges on the group who seemed annoyed that the defendant hadn't learned English.  

So, instead of participating in a trial, I took a picture of a badass vending machine and went to ride my unicycle in the park. Win.

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