Selecting the Jury in a Traffic Court Case
One overriding factor to keep in mind when selecting a jury for a traffic case: the judge may not be “on your side.” The reality of jury trials is that judges resent the extra time and expense required to try a traffic court case in front of a jury (versus in front of a judge). For that reason, a judge may wish to speed up the selection process and may wish to cut corners in order to keep the court calendar on track. In a worse case, if you piss off a judge seriously enough – demanding technical requirements or making hyper technical claims – the judge has many ways to all but make sure the jury finds you guilty. That can throw things off for defendants because most lawyers believe that selecting members of a jury is the single most important phase of the trial.
Things to Keep in Mind When Selecting a Jury
- As a defendant, you want to send narrow-minded, police-oriented individuals straight home, because they will rarely vote for acquittal no matter how good a case you present.
- you are seeking jurors who are open-minded, willing to listen to both sides, and at least a little skeptical of police and prosecutorial power.
- In the unlikely event you find yourself talking with a potential juror, do not discuss your case, because this may be seen as attempting to tamper with the jury. Casual conversation about the weather or sports is okay.
- When reviewing a potential juror pool, seek out a list from the court of the names and occupations of the potential jurors. If you obtain this (some courts don’t provide it). If you don’t get the names in advance, fill them in as you go along.
Questioning jurors to see if they are biased or may view you in a negative way is called “voir dire,” from the French words for “to speak the truth.” In many states the judge will probably elect to ask all the questions. Usually the judge will direct questions at the entire panel, not to individual jurors. Often this will consist of only a few perfunctory questions relating to occupation, spouse’s occupation, previous experience with the criminal justice system, and possible acquaintance with police officers andattorneys. For example, a judge might ask:
“Do any of you know any of the parties to this case?”
“Do any of you work for the police, the district attorney’s office, or any other law enforcement agency?”
“Do any of you have relatives or close friends who work in law enforcement or in a district attorney’s office?”
“Does anyone on the jury panel know of any reason why he or she can’t render an impartial decision in this case?”
If a potential juror reveals a possibly significant prejudice that could bias him or her against you, the judge will probably quickly excuse that particular juror “for cause” without you even having to say anything. When the judge is done, he or she may allow you and the prosecutor to ask a few additional questions designed to ferret out a juror’s prejudice or bias. This lets you avoid using up your peremptory challenges. If a judge excuses a juror, a new juror will be called to sit in the jury box. At this point, the judge may ask additional questions of these new individuals or, if these people have already been in the courtroom, simply ask if they heard the questions and if they personally know any of the parties or anyone who does.
When the judge is finished questioning the jurors, it often makes sense to indicate that you accept the jury with no need to ask more questions. Again, in a garden variety traffic court case, you’ll likely score more points by being fair and reasonable than you will by acting like Perry Mason (something you’re likely not too good at anyway). That being said, there can, of course, be times when you’ll want to ask jurors a few additional questions. This is particularly likely if the judge has done a half-baked job in attempting to determine if any jurors might be biased against you.
What to do if you are unhappy with a juror’s answer. If a juror says something that indicates to you that he or she might not be fair, be prepared to ask a follow-up question. For example, you might say, “Mr. Jones, I noticed you seemed to nod slightly when I asked you if you had any friends or relatives who were police officers. Was that a ‘yes’ answer?” Depending on the answer, you might want to ask further questions to expose a possible anti-defendant or pro-police prejudice. If you decide to excuse that particular person, either use one of your peremptory challenges or, if the juror’s possible bias is obvious, ask the judge to excuse the juror for cause.
How to Challenge a Juror
There are two reasons you may want to get a particular person off the jury:
- The person exposes a clear bias against you (says he or she hates people who drive fast), or
- You have a bad feeling about a juror for a vague, undefined reason.
Fortunately, there are also two ways to get rid of a juror you do not want.
Challenges for Cause
If a prospective juror strongly indicates that he or she can’t be fair, the judge may disqualify the juror before you say anything. But if this doesn’t occur, wait until you are given a chance to make a challenge and ask the judge to disqualify that person for cause. To do this, simply say, “Your Honor, I respectfully challenge prospective juror Smith for cause on account of his statement that he would ‘find it hard to be fair’ in light of his statement that his mother was injured by someone who was speeding.”
Here are common reasons why a judge will agree to dismiss a juror for cause:
- The prospective juror indicates that he or she would believe the word of a police officer over you, just because the witness was a police officer.
- The prospective juror is a close friend or relative of the officer or any other prosecution witness, or of the prosecuting attorney.
- The prospective juror learned of your case before being called to court as a juror, and has expressed some opinion about your guilt.
- The prospective juror, or his or her close friend or relative, was seriously injured by someone who committed the same type of offense you’re charged with, and the juror admits it would be hard to be objective.
If the judge disagrees with you and refuses to remove the juror, you still have another way to get that juror off the panel.
Peremptory (Automatic) Challenges
In most states you have the right to excuse a certain specified number of prospective jurors for any reason, or for no given reason at all. How many of these automatic or “peremptory” challenges you are allowed varies from state to state (often depending on the offense you’re charged with, and on the size of the jury). With a jury of 12, it would be typical for you and the prosecutor to each have anywhere from three to ten peremptory challenges. If the jury has only six members, you might be allowed only two to five such challenges. But since this is an area where each state does things a little differently, you’ll want to ask in advance what your state’s rules are.
Most experienced trial lawyers believe that, when considering whether or not to challenge a juror, it’s wise to respect your instincts. If you get bad vibes from someone—even if you can’t explain why—you’ll want to remove that person from the jury. But in addition to trusting your gut, if the judge does not excuse them, you probably would be wise to consider exercising peremptory challenges to exclude the following types of people:
- present and former police officers and security guards, their spouses, and children
- anyone who has ever worked in a prosecutor’s office, including lawyers, paralegals, and support staff
- relatives or close friends of the above
- anyone who has ever been involved in an accident, or had a relative involved in an accident, caused by someone who was charged with the offense you’re charged with (assuming, of course, you’ve been able to get this information)
- people who don’t drive much, or who have never received a traffic ticket
- people who, from gestures, body language, and a generally hostile attitude, obviously resent being called for jury duty
- people you feel uneasy about but don’t know why, and
- (possibly) people whose dress and/or lifestyles are very different from yours.
Again, when you exercise a peremptory challenge, be polite. Simply say something like this, “Your Honor, the Defense would like to thank and request the court to excuse the fifth juror, Ms. Jones.”