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Jury Duty Dodgers Rile Judges

Every month, hundreds of people are summoned to courts across the nation for a public scolding. It's no surprise that only a handful show up — after all, they are expert at that all-American custom: dodging jury duty.

Fed-up judges from Los Angeles County to New York have responded by redirecting these scofflaws from the jury box to the hot seat. Residents who ignore repeated calls to appear can face fines and, in some places, even jail time.

"It's not an invitation," said jury expert Tom Munsterman. "It's an obligation."

Earlier this month, only eight of 225 people identified as chronic offenders showed up to feel the wrath of Superior Court Judge James L. Wright. Those who ducked their duty were all fined, though penalties would be dropped if they actually serve.

The eight who did attend had an uncomfortable time. A single mother holding her infant had her service deferred a year. A man who told the judge he ignored the summons because he hasn't mastered English was ordered to report next month.

Wright watched as tears rolled down the face of Darlene Acevedo, a 52-year-old dockworker from Wilmington.

"My husband's in the hospital for a year. I have a certain amount of hours I have to" work, she pleaded. "I don't have the time. Right now the way I feel, I can't be a juror."

The judge deferred her service to next September.

Still teary eyed outside court, Acevedo expressed anger over being required to serve. "A jury is not something you should be forced to do," she said. "It's something you want to do."

Not exactly, though court orders to serve are largely ignored.

Factoring in deferrals, bad addresses and legitimate excuses, an average of 20 to 30 percent of the summonses sent out nationwide net a juror, according to Munsterman of the Virginia-based Center for Jury Studies.

Books explain how to duck the duty, and numerous Web sites list excuses both serious and lighthearted: "I get dizzy if I try to weigh evidence" and "I'm allergic to justice."

"I don't think people realize it is a citizenship duty until we put it right in front of their face," Wright said last week.

Nationwide, courts are trying to do just that — make the consequences of jury dodging more painful.

Since November, state trial courts around Phoenix have sent sheriff's deputies to the homes of jury dodgers with orders to appear. In New York County, officials snared 1,443 Manhattan jury dodgers last year with $250 fines.

The massive Los Angeles County court system, which sent out 2.9 million summonses in the last fiscal year and had an initial response rate around 25 percent, is also trying to cope.

Sanction hearings like the one in Long Beach catch only a small fraction of jury dodgers and are intended primarily as public outreach.

Until two years ago, they were held solely at the main downtown Los Angeles courthouse. The massive county's 9.9 million people weren't getting the message, so officials began rotating the hearings among various courts.

The county slapped residents with more than $940,000 in penalties over the first six months of this year, fines that are referred to a collection agency. Court officials couldn't say how many people were fined.

The common refrain isn't that people want to avoid serving — it's that serving can be a pain. Courts say they get the message and are becoming more accommodating.

Baltimore courts this month began giving jurors cheap parking and discounts at downtown restaurants. California has unveiled simplified civil jury instructions and is working to craft the same for criminal cases. Across Arizona, most of California and at least five other states, jury service now operates under a system designed to limit dreaded assembly room waits to one day.

New York has increased juror's daily pay and is mulling the idea of offering free Internet access. In some jurisdictions, potential jurors first call the court to see if they are needed.

Aided by free publicity from TV programs focusing on trials and juries — as well as celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey who serve willingly and famously — court officials insist they're making progress. Three-quarters of the people in a summer survey by the
American Bar Association disagreed with the notion that jury service is a hardship.

Then there's the tiny, reluctant bunch in the Long Beach courtroom, and the thousands more who duck out of service and don't get caught.

"Everybody loves jury duty," Munsterman joked, "but not this week."

By Ryan Pearson