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Some potential jurors bail on serving in local courts

By Kristen Mitchell
Tribune staff
Published: November 27, 2014 Updated: November 28, 2014 at 09:25 AM

ST. PETERSBURG — Though some summoned jurors skip out on their duties, tracking down local violators and holding them in contempt of court hasn’t been a high priority. Most residents show up to serve — even if begrudgingly.

Wanda Macon, who oversees jury pools for Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, anticipates about 70 percent of summoned jurors showing up on their reporting date. Most who don’t are excused or call with a last-minute conflict.

Potential jurors — adults in either county with a driver’s license or identification card — receive summonses four weeks before their reporting dates, and can reschedule their service one time for any reason.

“We try to be flexible with our jurors,” Macon said.

In the past two years, the no-show rate officially has hovered around 14 percent, but that number isn’t necessarily accurate. Some people don’t receive their notices because they have changed addresses, are homelessness, are out of town or are in military service. Others call in with last-minute complications such as car trouble or illness. Figuring in those scenarios, Macon said, the number of true no-shows is closer to 5 percent.

Summoned jurors can be punished for failing to show up, but it is fairly uncommon. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Chief Judge J. Thomas McGrady said only once did he hold a juror in contempt of court; it was about 14 years ago when a man left for a lunch break after jury selection and never came back.

While jury service can be an inconvenience, he said, he wants people to think about how they would feel if they were charged with a crime.

“Wouldn’t you want some decent people serving?” he said.

In Hillsborough County, the clerk of court handles jury selection, but a court spokesman said “fairly often” they run into problems with people who don’t want to serve. In October 2011, when almost 400 people didn’t show up for jury service one day, Circuit Judge Gregory Holder had police pick them up and threatened them with jail and fines if they didn’t have a legitimate excuse.

“They don’t like to do that kind of stuff, but when you’re trying to pick a jury and people don’t show, that’s not good,” said Jeff Stidham, spokesman for Hillsborough’s court system.

McGrady said he never has done that in Pinellas-Pasco. When weighing the costs and benefits, McGrady said, tracking down absent jurors hasn’t been a top priority.

“I’m reluctant to go out and hunt them down,” he said. “We haven’t done it yet; that doesn’t mean we won’t.”

Summoned jurors don’t have to give an excuse to postpone their service, Macon said, but often they do. Generally they are typical life issues: a loved one’s death; a medical condition or scheduled procedure; other personal or business reasons. If an individual decides to postpone for a second time, she said, the court might have additional questions.

Jury duty can entail long days, absence from a person’s normal life and a financial burden. Some employers pay their workers’ wages during their jury duty, but it is not required by law. Florida guarantees a $15 per day stipend for retired and unemployed jurors, and for those who aren’t receiving compensation from their employer. After three days of service the daily pay rate rises to $30.

Serving on a jury is critical to court proceedings, court officials say. While not everyone wants to serve, McGrady said, participating on a jury is “the greatest thing you can do” as a citizen besides serving in the military.

“Once people are chosen,” McGrady said, “my experience has been people take it very seriously.”

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