Hi Law Librarian, I recently came across a study that claims one in five Californians fail to report for jury duty. It made me wonder, what are the ramifications for ignoring a summons? Also, are there legal ways to avoid serving? During our busiest times, my boss prohibits us from taking time off. Plus, I get paid based on the hours I work, so if I miss work, either my income will take a hit for the week or I will have to use up my scarce vacation days.
This question comes up for most people at some point in their working lives, often at the worst possible time. For those of us whose pay depends on being at work between certain hours, there’s never really a good time to take unplanned time off. If your jury service notice comes at a particularly bad time, though, you do have the option of rescheduling for a better date. There are also a few valid excuses, which must be approved by the court ahead of time.
The study you saw was probably “Do Californians Answer the Call to Serve on a Jury? A Report on California Rates of Jury Service Participation,” from California Citizens against Lawsuit Abuse. CALA and several other groups submitted requests through the Public Records Act regarding rates of juror response to the 15 California counties with the largest populations and issued the study in May of this year. (By the way, Sacramento had one of the lowest “no-show” rates of the counties surveyed: 7.41 percent, compared to about 30 percent in Los Angeles and San Diego, and the top rate of 45.66 percent in Ventura County.)
Jurors who fail to appear without rescheduling or being excused are in contempt of court and can be fined up to $1,000, imprisoned for up to five days or both per California Code of Civil Procedure §§ 1209(11), 1218. The judge has an alternative, however: Under CCP § 209(b), the judge can sanction the juror with a fine of $250 for a first violation, $750 for a second and $1,500 for a third or any subsequent violation. These amounts can be waived or reduced if they impose undue hardship upon the juror, or in the interests of justice. Judges will sometimes reduce the fine if the juror agrees to serve on an upcoming date.
As a practical matter, the consequences of failure to appear to vary from county to county. In some counties, the court might not have a system set up to follow up on absent jurors, and there is no consequence at all. Alameda County, which has historically failed to punish absent jurors, is experimenting with a reminder system: Jurors who fail to appear first get a reminder call, then a new appearance date with a schedule of potential fines. If they still fail to comply, a fine is issued. Los Angeles has a similar system.
In Sacramento, an absent juror may get a notice of Failure to Appear in the mail. If the juror ignores that notice, a bench warrant may be issued. This may show up if the juror is pulled over while driving and can lead to arrest and having your car towed. If the juror responds to the notice, the court may simply reschedule the juror, issue a lower fine, or issue the first-violation fine of $250 (or the higher fines if the juror is a repeat offender).
So how can you legally avoid serving? As mentioned above, you can request a one-time postponement of up to six months (one year for breastfeeding mothers). This does not put you back in the jury lottery; it is an actual rescheduling, and you will be expected to appear on the new date without further notice. Postponements of up to 90 days can be requested online; longer stays must be requested in writing. There should be information about this on your jury summons or the county court website.
An eligible person may be excused (rather than postponed) only for undue hardship to themselves or the public per CCP § 204(b). Hardship can include personal obligation to care for another without the financial capability to hire a substitute; extreme financial burden preventing the juror’s ability to support self or family, physical or mental condition that would cause undue risk of physical or mental hardship (this requires a doctor’s note), lack of transportation and the total public transit commute time exceeds one and a half hours, having served on a jury within the past 18 months or active military service.
Certain people are ineligible. Jurors must be U.S. citizens, 18 years old and have a sufficient understanding of English. They must also be a current resident of the county that has summoned them. People who are current grant jurors, under conservatorship, convicted felons or malfeasors, or peace officers are disqualified as well per CCP § 203. If any of those are true, contact the court.
As to your last question, employers cannot legally prohibit employees from taking time off for jury duty or penalize them for attending. California Labor Code § 230. Employers are not required to pay jurors for the time off, but some do. Check with your manager or human resources department. (Exempt employees, who are paid a salary rather than hourly rate, must be paid for the week if they work any hours that week per 29 CFR 541.602.) If your employer has questions about their obligation to you, there is information available on the California Courts’ website.
By the way, if you do get paid for jury duty days, you will probably have to sign your court pay (currently a skimpy $15/day) over to the employer.
One last note: There is currently a telephone scam operating in some California counties. Callers pretending to be court employees warn the recipient that they have a warrant out for failure to appear for jury duty, and offer to take care of it over the phone with a credit card. The courts are warning Californians not to fall for this scam. In Sacramento, court employees never contact jurors by phone, only by mail. If you receive such a call, you should report it to your county’s Jury Commissioner’s office. In Sacramento, the phone number is 916.874.7775.
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