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Avoiding Jury Duty Without Guilt : But 'Amazing Stories' Outnumber Legitimate Excuses

October 08, 1986|JOHN DREYFUSS | Times Staff Writer

Once there was a French poodle. It lived in an apartment. Upstairs, in the same building, lived a mutt. The County of Los Angeles asked the woman who owned the poodle to serve on a jury. That would be impossible, she said, because "the mutt upstairs would break in and the poodle would have a litter of mutt puppies."

Judy Rivituso likes to tell that story. She calls it "classic." Rivituso is the jury assignment supervisor for Los Angeles County, so a lot of excuses come her way.

Outlandish Excuses

Over the years, she and others with similar jobs hear volumes worth of amazing stories from people trying to avoid juries. Some succeed, most do not. But no records are kept of which outlandish excuses serve their purposes.

Occasionally a jury dodger gets so tense he mixes up his words, as in the case recounted by Tom Munsterman, director of the Center for Jury Studies in Williamsburg, Va.:

"I remember where a judge asked a fellow why he couldn't serve," Munsterman said. "The man said, 'My wife is going to conceive a baby.' The judge said, 'Young man, I think you mean deliver a baby, but in either case I think you should be there." And the man went home.

Then there are folks who use the right words but garble them, like the San Diego man who had a friend write that he was "confined to bed with a nurse eight hours a day."

Prospective jurors in New York show such a propensity for couching excuses in arcane medical terms that County Clerk Norman Goodman keeps a medical dictionary on his desk.

Gerry M. Stevens, San Diego County's assistant jury commissioner, remembers a man who provided the ultimate medical excuse without resorting to obscure language. In a letter dated last December, he declared: "I died on Sept. 28, 1985."

Each year more than 900,000 prospective jurors in Los Angeles County are sent "Dear Citizen" letters informing them their names have been randomly selected (from voter registration or Department of Motor Vehicles rosters). With the letter comes a questionnaire. Can you read and understand English? Are you a U.S. citizen? Do you live in Los Angeles County? Are you 18 or older? A "no" response to any of those questions, or one of several others, disqualifies potential candidates.

Half of Qualified Jurors Serve

"Only about 28% qualify," said Mary Fitten, Los Angeles County's jury qualifications supervisor. "Of those, about half serve." The rest get off for a variety of reasons such as financial hardship, lack of transportation, physical or mental impairment or the obligation to "provide actual and necessary care to another."

Persons failing to appear in court after being called to serve on a jury panel get follow-up letters, noted Ray Arce, Los Angeles County's jury commissioner. "If they blatantly disregard the letter, a judge can issue a warrant calling them into court. The judge can exonerate them or hold them in contempt. They can be fined up to $250 and sent to jail. Usually the jail is just overnight, but it can be longer. I don't think there is a prescribed limit," Arce said. Recalcitrant jury candidates usually decide to serve, and almost never go to jail, county officials observed.

Arce noted that jurors spend about 900,000 days in court every year in Los Angeles County, adding that some of them are paid by their employers while on jury duty, but there are no accurate figures as to the exact number.

Two years ago California stiffened its rules for selecting potential jurors. That made it harder to avoid jury duty, but apparently did nothing to stunt the imaginations of those trying to do so.

For example, Fitten hears from secretaries who claim they can't sit down and Glendale residents who argue that their city is not in Los Angeles County.

Not everybody tries to slip out the obligation established by the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution, which declares "in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury . . . " A lot of people consider jury duty a civic responsibility, and some get downright fanatical about it.

Wear Those Badges

Orange County's jury commissioner, Alan Slater, recalled one woman who got obsessive about following instructions. "We tell the jurors to please wear their jury badges at all times," Slater said by way of introducing the tale of the woman who, on her second day of jury duty, sheepishly requested a new badge. When asked why, she responded, "I forgot to take the first one off my pajamas this morning."

Arce observed that even people who try to duck jury duty usually are pleasant. "Only about one of a thousand gets really nasty," he said, noting that when they do turn malicious "They yell, they curse and they make racial remarks." When that happens, Arce said, "For the most part we treat people courteously and then show them the way out."

A Frightening Excuse

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