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Jury Duty No-Shows Get Their Day in Court

CALIFORNIA | ON THE LAW

After repeated failures to appear, L.A. County Superior Court wants an explanation -- or a fine.

January 28, 2005|Nicholas Shields | Times Staff Writer

When a bailiff called his name, Brady Clark carefully placed his 20-ounce bottle of Dr Pepper on the floor of the Santa Monica courtroom.

Clad in flip-flops, surfer shorts and a blue T-shirt with "Sharkeez" stamped across the chest, Clark tucked his trucker hat under his folded arms as he approached Superior Court Judge Craig Karlan.

Before Karlan could speak, Clark felt compelled to explain his wardrobe.

"Excuse my attire," he said. "I wasn't aware this was a court hearing.

"I hope I don't get fined," the 27-year-old bartender muttered.

Clark had failed to respond to three notices summoning him for jury duty with the Los Angeles County Superior Court. But the order to show cause notice, threatening a $250 fine, got his attention.

Clark was one of only eight people out of 152 notified who bothered to show up for a court hearing last Friday -- a response rate that the court, which runs the justice system in Los Angeles County, is trying hard to improve.

Every day, 10,000 jurors are needed throughout the county's court system, according to Gloria Gomez, director of jury services for the Superior Court.

During the year that ended June 30, 2.9 million jury duty summonses were mailed to prospective jurors in L.A. County. Some 441,123 people served.

Gomez said 41% of county residents respond when sent a jury summons and 40% do not. The remaining notices can't be delivered.

Tom Munsterman, director of the Virginia-based Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts, said the lack of response poses a problem for most major metropolitan areas, and outdated addresses make it worse.

A judge has the power to impose a $250 fine for the first failure to appear notice, $750 for the second offense and $1,500 for the third.

Karlan imposed a $250 fine on the 144 people who failed to attend Friday's hearing. Last year, $86,000 in jury duty fines was collected in Los Angeles County.

The most common excuses Karlan hears are that people are too busy or didn't receive the letters.

Not even judges are excused from jury duty.

Last year, Karlan's courtroom was closed for five days while he was called as a prospective juror in a death penalty case.

"People spend all this time watching the law shows on television. What goes on in court is true and much more real -- it's not fiction like TV," Karlan said. "I tell [jurors], 'You are all judges now.' "

Karlan said the legal system isn't perfect, "but it's as good as it gets."

"What we need are Americans of good heart," said Laurie Levenson, a professor of law at Loyola Law School. "It's not like on voting day when you can choose not to vote. [Jury duty is] the most American thing you can do."

Levenson said that when people do not respond, the community is deprived of representation.

J. Stephen Czuleger, assistant presiding judge for the Superior Court, agreed, saying, "Anyone that has spent any time in Los Angeles knows we have a broad constituency of citizens, cultures, races, backgrounds. It's really important that jury pools represent the same group. ... Jurors face issues in the courtroom that will impact everyday lives."

Echoing a thought voiced by Levenson, he added, "It's hard to hear people criticize when they don't get involved."

By California law, jurors are not paid for the first day of service.

They receive $15 for each additional day and 32 cents for each mile driven to the courthouse.

"We would like to see the jury duty pay raised to $40 a day, but with the state budget crisis, we haven't been able to get it," said state courts spokeswoman Lynn Holton.

Since the adoption in 1999 of "one day or one trial" jury service, which significantly shortened the time a prospective juror can expect to serve and allows a juror to serve either one day or one trial each year, the courts have needed to summon even more people for possible service.

The rules give recipients a year to respond to the original jury summons. If they don't, a sanction summons is mailed, setting a new date for jury duty, with 30 days to respond before a failure to appear notice is sent.

If that is ignored, the person gets an order to appear before a judge to explain why he or she did not appear for jury duty.

Clark's excuse? He hadn't lived at the residence where the summonses were sent in years, his mother threw away the early summonses and she signed the certified notice that was finally sent to him.

Karlan then asked Clark to sign his name on a sheet of paper to prove it.

After comparing signatures, he reached his decision.

"It looks like somebody else signed it," Karlan said, though admitting, "I'm no handwriting expert."

Karlan's ruling: Clark was rescheduled for duty, with no fine.

Not everyone is as fortunate. Take Jaime Toribio, 24, who recently appeared before Karlan stubbornly insisting that somebody else should serve.

"They should get people that want to do it," Toribio said.

His explanation -- that he was busy at work on the date of his summons -- wasn't as well received as Clark's.

Karlan fined him $35 on the condition that he appear for jury duty Feb. 28.

"You've got to handle it before anything happens, or they charge you," Toribio said. "Trust me, I'll be there."

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