October 11, 2016

To Tweet or Not to Tweet? That is the Question (and When You’re a Juror, the Answer is No)

Murphy v. Roth, Case No. 4D14-4830 (Fla. 4th DCA Oct. 5, 2016)*

Jury service may not be anyone’s favorite pastime, but it is a civic duty and a critical component of the system of justice. One important aspect of jury duty is the obligation to avoid communicating about the jury service or the case, and that prohibition includes posting on social media. Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal recently issued an opinion regarding an order denying a plaintiff’s motion for a new trial in an automobile accident case where, after the trial, the plaintiff discovered that a juror had posted comments on Twitter during the days of jury selection and trial.

During jury selection, the court had instructed the prospective jurors not to discuss the case or their service:

“You must not communicate with anyone, including friends and family members, about this case, the people and places involved, or your jury service. You must not disclose your thoughts about this case or ask for advice on how to decide this case.”

“I want to stress that this rule means you must not use electronic devices or computers to communicate about this case, including tweeting, texting, blogging, emails, posting information on a website or chatroom, or any other means at all. Do not send or accept any messages to and from anyone about this case or your jury service.”

After the jury was selected and sworn, the trial court again instructed the jury not to communicate about the case electronically:

“In this age of electronic communication I want to stress again that just as you must not talk about this case face-to-face, you must not talk about this case by using an electronic device. Do not send or accept any messages related to this case or your jury service. Do not discuss this case or ask for advice by any means at all, including posting information on an Internet website, chatroom, or blog.”

Juror 5 misinterpreted the scope of that order and posted a series of tweets on Twitter during the days of jury selection and trial. His tweets did not name the case or give specific details about it, but he mentioned his dissatisfaction with being selected for jury service and his unhappiness with being at the courthouse all day. He implied that he might have given partial or careless answers to some questions during jury selection and expressed a belief that “everyone is so money hungry that they’ll do anything for it.” The plaintiff alleged that Juror 5’s tweets showed a disdain for the court system and his jury service and a bias against the plaintiff.

Upon the plaintiff’s post-trial motion for juror interview, the juror testified that he did not tweet while sitting in the courtroom during the trial and that he did not intentionally or deliberately disobey the court’s order prohibiting use of social media. After conducting four hearings on the matter, the court declined to sanction the juror and denied the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial.

The plaintiff appealed to the Fourth DCA. The question on appeal was only whether the trial court abused its discretion in concluding, after four hearings on the matter, that Juror 5 had misinterpreted the scope of the trial court’s instructions and did not willfully and intentionally violate the court’s order, and whether the trial court acted reasonably in declining to grant a new trial after making those findings about Juror 5.

The Fourth DCA noted that the juror’s tweets were potentially offensive and were contrary to the trial court’s order precluding discussion of the case. However, under the “abuse of discretion” standard of review, the appellate court reasoned that the “trial court … credited and accepted Juror 5’s explanation that this misconduct was neither intentional nor willful, and that none of his tweets related specifically to this case.” Further, the trial court “found that the comments contained in Juror 5’s tweets were insufficiently prejudicial to Plaintiff to require a new trial. There is no evidence that any of the other jurors saw, or had any discussions about, Juror 5’s tweets. Moreover, nothing in the plain language of Juror 5’s tweets discusses any facts specific to this case or the parties involved. Thus, it cannot be said that the trial court abused its discretion in concluding that Juror 5 misinterpreted the scope of the trial court’s instruction not to post about his jury service and that he did not intentionally violate the court’s order.”

This is the first time a Florida appellate court has directly addressed the issue of juror misconduct arising from the use of social media during a trial. Even though the Fourth DCA declined to reverse the trial court’s discretionary denial of the motion for new trial under the specific facts of this case, this case serves as a reminder of the importance of following the judge’s instructions not to communicate about jury service on social media, so as to protect the integrity of the trial process.

*The decision is not final until disposition of any timely-filed motion for rehearing.