TWIN FALLS• What happens when you don’t show up for jury duty? Five Twin Falls County residents found out the hard way last week when District Judge Randy Stoker ordered them to appear in his courtroom.
The group all had been scheduled to be on a panel in a civil trial Stoker presided over the previous week, but they didn’t show up.
“When you don’t show up for jury duty, its called contempt of court,” Stoker said. “The judge has the legal power to put you next door in the jail for five days and fine you for $5,000. I don’t think many people know that.”
Stoker said he didn’t want to embarrass the bunch, but show them and the public, the seriousness of what happens when people skip out on their civic duty.
In the previous week, Stoker said, there were two District Court trials scheduled a civil case with Stoker and a criminal case with judge Richard Bevan.
Stoker’s case involved a large number of witnesses who were farmers in the area. The court worried they would be well known by members on the jury panel, and many people would be kicked off the jury for that reason.
The morning of the trial, there was supposed to be a pool of 58 people to choose from. Four called in with an emergency excuse and nine more just didn’t show up. This made the odds of getting an unbiased jury for the case low, Stoker said.
This meant Woolley and her staff had to spend time that morning trying to track everyone down who didn’t show up. Four were nearby and showed up after a phone call, but five more were missing.
Then, Bevan’s case settled, and court staff got 20 people from that panel to join the civil case. From there, jury selection began, and an impartial jury was selected.
The trial had been delayed for 90 minutes, which wasn’t a huge inconvenience for court staff, Stoker said, “but the other 40 people - your friends, neighbors acquaintances, were sitting here in this courtroom waiting for you.
Twin Falls County’s jury commissioner, Jerry Woolley, has authority to work with jurors’ schedules and other issues. She often goes to great lengths to accommodate jurors, he said.
Stoker let the five jurors know he wasn’t going to punish them. The long process would bog down the court, he said. But Stoker asked for an explanation from each of the two men and three women, he referred to as Jurors 1 through 5.
One juror reported she’d been laid off from her job, then recently called back to work and had simply forgotten about jury duty in the shuffle. Another juror said his work life, too had become stressful and he forgot.
“Understandable, but not acceptable,” Stoker said.
He pointed out that one reason a person can be excused from jury duty is a hardship like work or child care.
Another juror said she was extremely ill the day she was to show up for jury duty and missed the call from Woolley. Again, Stoker said, Twin Falls County would have been happy to let the woman stay home that day, if she had just called in to the jury commissioner, just like she called in for work.
One juror said he was participating in Army training that week and a miscommunication on his part was the reason he missed jury duty.
Finally, the last juror explained to Stoker that she is the caretaker for her very ill husband and caring him for him overwhelmed her.
Stoker made the point that most of the excuses were valid, but planning ahead and simply calling and explaining your situation before the last minute saves the county a headache on trial day - and saves the juror from being in front of a judge themselves.
Stoker said other counties in Twin Falls have had major problems with jurors not showing up - as many as half the panel - and he doesn’t want the problem spreading to Twin Falls.
Instead of a legal punishment, Stoker extended the five jurors’ service by one month.