Legal Question in Constitutional Law in California

Cited for Contempt of Court for Jury Nullification

As a juror, can I be held in Contempt of Court for exercising my right to Jury Nullification? What might this Contempt charge entail? Where can I find reference to Jury Nullification and voting my conscience in the Constitution?

Asked on 5/12/01, 1:44 pm

2 Answers from Attorneys

Edward Hoffman Law Offices of Edward A. Hoffman

Re: Cited for Contempt of Court for Jury Nullification

For those unfamilliar with the term, "Jury Nullification" means refusing to convict a defendant despite being convinced of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Jurors sometimes try to do this when they think the underlying law is unjust (for example, someone who feels marijuana should be legal might be unwilling to convict in a case where the defendant's marijuana use was clearly proven), where the prosecution seems unreasonable, or what have you.

The California Supreme Court recently ruled that jurors do not have the right to engage in nullification. Actually, what it said was that jurors have to follow the law whether they agree with it or not and that an individual juror doesn't have the right to create a hung jury by refusing to so deliberate. The Court left open the possibility that an ENTIRE jury could agree to nullify in a given case and acquit a clearly guilty defendant.

A juror who refuses to deliberate can be dismissed from the jury and replaced with an alternate; if there are no remaining alternates and the parties don't agree to continue with a reduced jury, this can cause a mistrial.

Dismissal is not punishment, and it is not clear how a court could punish an intransigent juror. I doubt that such a punishment would ever be imposed for fear of intimidating jurors in the future.

There is a standard jury instruction in California called CALJIC 17.41.1 which tells jurors to report to the judge if a fellow juror is refusing to deliberate. There is some controversey over whether this instruction intimidates jurors, because they -- like you -- probably don't know whether they will be punished for sticking to their position and might thereby feel pressured to convict even if they really have reasonable doubt. The propriety of this instruction is now pending before the California Supreme Court, but a decision is unlikely until at least next year. Even then, the Court will likely uphold the instruction, as the states lower appellate courts have done consistently.

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Answered on 6/23/01, 4:59 pm

Ken Koury Kenneth P. Koury, Esq.

Re: Cited for Contempt of Court for Jury Nullification

As a juror you have the absolute right to determine credibility of witnesses. You can choose to believe any witness you find credible and you can disbelieve any witness you find not to be credible. If in your subjective opinion the prosecution witnesses are not believable, then the prosecution has failed to prove its case and you MUST acquit the defendant. Understand?

You canít say that you refuse to convict because you donít like the law. That would be wrong.

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Answered on 8/04/01, 2:03 pm

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