Wayne judge to AWOL jurors: Explain yourselves

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Each year, thousands of Wayne County residents ignore summons for possible jury duty, tossing the court-ordered requests like so much junk mail.

Under state law, a citizen who ignores a court summons can face a fine up to $7,500 and/or a maximum jail time of 93 days.

Fed up with having so many citizens blow off their civic duty, court officials plan to have some of those scofflaws explain to a judge why they didn’t respond.

Chief Judge Robert Colombo Jr., who will conduct the April 27 hearing in Wayne County Circuit Court for 250 randomly selected citizens, wants prospective jurors to know that answering a summons isn’t optional, and that ignoring one can lead to jail time.

“The failure of a juror to appear costs this court money,” Colombo said. “We may not have enough jurors so we may have to adjourn matters.”

Chief Judge Robert Colombo Jr.

Colombo hasn’t thrown anyone behind bars yet, but he’s not ruling it out if a citizen’s reasons for not sending in a jury summons doesn’t cut it.

Under state law, a citizen who ignores a court summons can face a fine up to $7,500 and/or a maximum jail time of 93 days.

Important legal principles and safeguards are involved, the judge said.

Colombo said that by responding promptly to jury summons, citizens allow criminal defendants and parties in a civil matter to be represented by a jury of their peers. Sending in the form also helps ensure that jurors who do serve won’t be called repeatedly for duty because others fail to show up.

Colombo said if enough people ignore summons, the racial, ethnic and other demographics of jury pools can be skewed.

Having an adequate number of prospective jurors is a cornerstone of the legal system, the judge said.

“This helps us have jurors that represent the demographics of Wayne County,” said Colombo. “Jurors represent the thinking of the community. The jury system is perhaps the purest form of democracy.”

Jury summons were sent out to 194,341 Wayne County residents in 2016. Potential jurors are randomly picked from Secretary of State records. The data are taken from applications for Michigan driver’s license or state identification cards. Of the 62,388 called in for trial last year, more than a third — 22,255 — failed to show.

Wayne County’s court system isn’t alone in its struggle to persuade citizens to answer jury summons.

In Oakland County, court staff mailed out 43,728 summons last year and 36,522 potential jurors responded meaning more than 7,000 residents didn’t. Oakland County Circuit Court had 9,867 citizens report for jury service, according to court officials.

The penalities for those who failed to show up for jury duty can potentially be severe, the court’s jury service office said.

“A person may be subject to contempt of court,” according to a statement from the Oakland County jury services office.

Macomb County court officials declined to provide jury information.

In Wayne County, some prospective jurors have cited a variety of reasons for ignoring summons, Colombo said. Among them: an unwillingness to come to Detroit because of parking costs downtown and other financial considerations, such as a fear of losing their job or not being paid by their employer while on jury duty.

Time for a raise?

Under state law, jurors are paid at least $30 for their first full day of jury duty and $15 for half day. After the first full day of duty, jurors are paid a minimum of $40 a day and $25 for a half day. In addition, they receive 10 cents per mile for travel from their homes to the courthouse.

Statewide, courts paid out more than $6 million to jurors across the state in 2016, according to figures from the Michigan Supreme Court, which oversees state courts.

State Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, thinks jurors need to be paid more and has introduced a bill that would increase pay to $45 for each day served.

“It’s time that we gave a raise to jurors,” said Lucido. “I think these bills will help take the financial stress off the jurors.”

A longtime trial attorney, Lucido said jurors are not adequately reimbursed for expenses, such as parking and lunch.

“It costs money,” said Lucido. “It’s costing us (citizens) way more than (the court) is giving us. Something’s wrong with that.”

Lucido said courts should even consider providing jurors who lack transportation to court through companies such as Uber or Lyft, although he’s not advocating that “just yet.”

Financial issues are among the top reasons some people give for trying to get out of jury, said Lucido.

Colombo said Wayne County Circuit Court is exploring ways to help those jurors who can’t always afford the ride to Frank Murphy Hall of Justice and the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, which house the criminal and civil courts. The judge said his court “in the near future” will begin aiding jurors who need financial help by giving them bus tickets so they can get downtown.

A citizen’s duty

Southfield resident Vic Doucette says he answers the call when he is summoned to serve on a jury.

“It’s part of the rent you pay for being a citizen,” said Doucette. “It’s part of the bargain you make for being an American.”

Doucette said he served once on a civil case in Wayne County about 12 years ago and was called to sit on a marijuana possession case in Southfield about two years ago.

“The system only works if we are part of it,” he said.

Detroit resident Jamie Farmer, who recently served on a jury for a civil case in U.S. District Court in Detroit, said the experience was better than she expected.

“When I first got the summons, I thought I don’t want to do this,” she said. “After I sat on the jury I actually enjoyed it. You have more respect for the court process.”

Farmer said although “you go home exhausted” after serving, she advises other to do their civic jury and take part in the “honor” of being able to serve.

Detroiter Darrell Stewart, who has served on a jury in Wayne County and answers all of his summons, said doing so is an important duty of a citizen.

“If you can, you need to serve your community,” he said.