Mar 18, 2012

Saline County Circuit Clerk Dennis Milligan on Jury Exemptions

Sometimes good ideas need to be tempered with a little dose of reality.

As a circuit clerk, I deal with getting jury panels to court so that people can have their right to a fair trial established in the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that having a fair cross section of the population is fundamental to the administration of justice.

There is a good reason for this. Juries that include a cross section of any county will have a diverse jurors with a wide range of life experience, social, economic and political perspectives. Such diversity reflects a wide-range of community values.
Still we do put some limits on who can serve because we must take some of the realities in life into account when selected juries.

 We can’t just take the first 12 people who walk in the door and call them a jury.
To be a potential juror in Arkansas you must be an American citizen and a resident of the county where the trial is taking place. This goes directly to the part of the Sixth Amendment that requires “an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”

You must be a registered voter and have no previous felony convictions that you have not been pardoned for or had your record expunged. Being a registered voter says you care enough about your community to spend a little time and effort to register to vote.

Felony convictions remove a lot of rights such as voting, owning a firearm and serving on a jury.

You must not have served on a state jury panel in the last two years. Jury service is a civic duty, but it can be a hardship. You must take off from work to serve. The two-year limit prevents repeated service on one panel after another.

You have no major health problems or have an issue that jury service would cause a hardship on yourself or your family. Obviously if you have to let someone else take your mother in for medical treatment while you service on a jury, you mind will likely not be on the case in front of year.

Finally, jurors must be “able to read, write, and understand the English language without significant difficulty.”  The two most common type of evidence are testimony of a witness and documents. Both are usually in the English language. Without a basic understanding of the language the evidence is presented in, you would not be able to render a fair and accurate verdict.

All of these exemptions are based on common sense reasons.

Currently, Arkansas does not exempt people from jury service based on their occupation.

I’ve heard people who are doctors, lawyers and school teachers make strong cases for why their procession should be exempt from jury service. Usually, a circuit judge hears these arguments and decides on each individual’s circumstances.

In my experience, there is only one profession I would say needs to be exempt from serving on a jury. Law enforcement officers who are currently working need an exemption.

I’ve seen state police officers, deputy sheriffs and local police officers answer the call to serve on a jury panel. If the jury is being selected for a criminal case, defense attorneys are almost unanimous in striking them from the jury. In some cases, prosecutors don’t want a law enforcement officer on the jury.

If the jury is for a civil case, law enforcement offices are also not usually welcomed as jurors. If the case involves an automobile accident, neither side generally wants someone who has actually filed an accident report deciding the case.

The result is that deputies or police officers come in without complaint sit through the jury selection process and then go home without being picked. Sure, there are rare exceptions, but the vast majority of officers called never get picked to serve.

Because trials can easily be settled or postponed, jurors usually get notified the day before they are needed to come to court. Notifying them earlier – say a week in advance – would in many cases require a second notification not to come in because they case is not going to trial.

Either way, having an officer serving on a jury panel leaves those who set schedules unable to know if an officer is going to be pulled off duty to serve on a jury at any given time. This is a hardship to those who are in charge of stretching police manpower to provide the best protection on a tight budget.

While I can’t speak to what happens in the other 74 counties, there is usually at least one law enforcement officer called in each time we select new jury panels. In Saline County, that happens three times a year.

This results in a waste of taxpayer dollars.

In Arkansas, when members of a jury panel are called to the court house, they are paid $25 each for coming in. When the potential juror is a law enforcement officer with almost zero chance of getting selected to serve on a jury, it wastes the county’s money. While in the grand scheme of things $25 does not seem like much, there are those of us who, like me, think wasting even $1 is too much because we know it comes from the pockets of hard working people.

It also wastes the time of the officer. If he or she is a city policeman, the police department must bring in someone else to work the potential juror’s scheduled work time. Usually this means paying someone overtime to cover that shift.

It takes the service of a certified police officer way from the police department and it increases the cost of operation by the department having to pay overtime.

In many small towns in Arkansas the local police force consists of three officers. Taking one out to sit in court so they cannot be selected to serve on a jury doesn’t mean overtime for the other two. It means nobody is available to protect their city.

So it is time we looked at the reality of this and provide an exemption from jury service for law enforcement officers.

We don’t need to deny law enforcement officers the opportunity to participate in jury service.

When a new jury panel is selected, potential jurors receive a questionnaire. I propose an additional question that says “Are you an active law enforcement officer? If yes, do you want to exercise an exemption from jury service?”

State Senator Jeremy Hutchinson has agreed to sponsor this legislation in the Senate and Representative Prissy Hickerson hare agreed to sponsor it in the House when the Arkansas General Assembly meets in 2013.

This bill will cost the state no money. In fact, it will save some money for law enforcement agencies at the state, county and city level.

Guest Writer:  Dennis Milligan is the Saline County Circuit Clerk. His is a small business owner who has served as chairman and treasurer of the Republican Party of Arkansas. He was a Mike Huckabee delegate to the 2008 Republican National Convention.

Article Supplied by:  Jim Harris, Chief of Staff for Dennis Milligan