Ads, coupons, flyers, magazine renewal notices, and sometimes even your neighbor’s junk mail. One is seldom enthusiastic about checking what’s inside a mailbox. This is especially true if you live in the U.S. and you receive that all too familiar envelope from the court summoning you for jury duty. Who are the recipients of these exclusive official envelopes? Upstanding citizens such as yourself, of course.
Receiving a jury summons can initially seem like a time-consuming inconvenience, jumpstarting your mind to rattle off a list of excuses to avoid your civic duty. If you look at it from a different perspective, however, it can be a great opportunity to learn more about the justice system and participate in the intricate process of balancing the equities. In either case, intentionally ignoring a jury summons or unintentionally disregarding it can lead to stiff consequences, so it’s important to keep this in mind when you’re deciding what to do with that government document fresh out of your mailbox.
If you’re unable to show up for jury duty for some reason (or simply want to skip it), you’ll have to check the local court rules to determine how to excuse yourself and what the consequences are. You might get the chance to postpone it once and be assigned a new date, but if you continue putting it off you’re risking hefty fines or even some jail time.
Before fully addressing the question of “what happens if you don’t go to jury duty?”, let’s clear any confusion about what jury duty is, who should serve on a jury and whether you’re really required by the law to show up.
What is Jury Duty?
The jury is a vital part of the American legal system. Chosen by the lawyers and the judge, a jury usually consists of twelve people representing a cross-section of the community. The jury hears testimony and weighs the evidence to reach a decision on whether a defendant is “guilty” (criminal cases) or “liable” (civil cases). Jury duty is a citizen’s obligation to appear before the court and participate in the jury selection process. It’s one of the ways a member of the public can actively participate in the judicial process. One can consider it her civic responsibility and honor to serve as a juror in court proceedings.
The process begins with a random selection of qualified participants from the electoral register. If you received a jury summons in the mail, you should respond within seven days and confirm your attendance, request a postponement of the court date, or provide a valid excuse to not appear.
In typical legal proceedings, a defendant will be served with a complaint from the plaintiff. The complaint is, in effect, the case an...
Although only a small fraction of cases go to trial, those that do will rely on the jury’s ability to render a fair and objective decision. The jury will be presented with facts about the case, various types of evidence, and arguments from both sides. In the end, the jury should unanimously (unless instructed otherwise) reach a decision, hopefully, one that is fair and equitable.
Without responsible citizens carrying out their civic duties such as jury service, the legal system could come to a standstill.
Who Can Serve on a Jury?
While the rules may slightly vary depending on which state you reside in, it’s likely you’re already a part of the list of potential jurors in your county of residence if you are a U.S. citizen of legal age and you’re registered to vote or have a driver’s license.
More specifically, if you meet the criteria below, you may be summoned for jury service once a year or once every several years:
- You are a U.S. citizen;
- You are 18 years of age or older;
- You live in the county where jurisdiction is part of the court;
- You understand and speak English; or
- You are not a felon or have not been charged with a felony.
It should be noted, however, that while a felon loses his right to serve on a jury, this right can be restored seven years after the conviction, depending on the state.
Being eligible to serve on a jury also does not necessarily lead to a jury summons. As noted earlier, jury selection begins as a random name-selection process; some names may never be selected. Many people can go a lifetime without being called for jury duty.
Do I Have to Go to Jury Duty?
Do I have to show up for jury duty? If this question haunts your mind, the short answer is yes, in all likelihood.
While there are some valid excuses to get out of jury duty, by law, you are required to appear when duty calls. Should you intentionally ignore the summons, you will likely receive a second summons with a new court date. Continually missing jury duty may ultimately lead to serious consequences, such as paying a costly fine, being in criminal contempt of court, and possibly serving jail time (discussed in more detail below). This can all be avoided by complying with your obligation to respond, either by agreeing to appear or requesting a valid excuse.
Jury duty is a civic function that safeguards one of the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution, which is the right to a speedy trial and an impartial jury. This fundamental right should be protected and carried out by all eligible members of society whenever possible.
What Happens If I Don’t Show Up for Jury Duty?
So, what if I don’t show up for jury duty? While ignoring the first summons might postpone your obligation until a second one is issued, continuing down this road of indifference may lead to the court finding you in contempt.
Contempt of court, or “contempt”, is a willful action disobeying a court order and is considered a crime.
While the judge may show some sympathy for the first offense and issue only a warning, more severe penalties can be imposed for successive offenses.
Therefore, if you skipped out on your jury duty (or are considering doing so), keep in mind that you may have to appear at an order to show cause court hearing and state your reasons for not showing up. The judge could issue a warning, court-ordered community service, a fine, or even a short prison sentence for contempt.
Penalties for Not Showing Up to Jury Duty
Now, let’s say you don’t show up for jury duty and also fail to appear at the order to show cause hearing. So what happens if you miss jury duty? The judge then has the right to issue an arrest warrant, which means you could face additional criminal charges. Since you probably don’t want this, it’s a good idea not to let things escalate this far.
If you do find yourself in contempt of court, these are the penalties you might face:
1. A fine of up to $500 (in some states, up to $1,500), plus the costs for the show cause order. Some states (such as Tennessee) can reduce your penalty to $50, as long as you manage to complete your jury duty obligations.
2. Time spent behind bars. While the exact number of days varies among states, it’s usually between three to five days.
3. Community service requirement. This is often combined with any of the other penalties, but in some cases, you may get away with just doing community service.
Also remember that stretching the truth to get out of jury duty may lead to prosecution for perjury, a felony, which may lead to an additional prison sentence and a fine of up to $1,000.
If you are still wondering what will happen if you miss jury duty, or you missed it already and you’re waiting for a court order, it may be wise to consult a criminal defense attorney and seek formal legal advice. Many attorneys and law firms provide free consultations and can advise you on the best course of action.
How Can I Legally Get Out of Jury Duty?
If you believe you have a justifiable reason to skip jury duty, you can provide your excuse on the jury summons and send it back to the court. Should you not have a legal excuse, you still have an opportunity to postpone your jury duty to a time that works better for you.
Those who are legally exempt can still voluntarily respond for jury duty, but this is not required by the law. While the excuses to be exempt from service vary from state to state, these are the most common ones:
- Not a U.S. citizen;
- Under 18 years of age or 75 years and older;
- Lack of elementary understanding of English;
- On active military duty;
- Working as a full-time police officer or investigator, or providing services that are immediately needed for the protection of the public health;
- Working as a primary caregiver of a young child or person with a disability;
- Attending school or university outside of the county or state;
- Serving on a jury would impose a mental, physical, or financial strain;
- Served on a jury within the past year; or
- Convicted of a felony.
Reasons such as a personal vacation (no matter how perfectly planned), deadlines at work, or fear of losing your job aren’t valid excuses. They may, however, be reasons to postpone and reschedule your jury service. So whether you fall within one of the recognized excuses for a jury duty exemption, or if you need to reschedule the date based on your circumstances, respond to the summons promptly and present your reasons properly.
It’s up to you to decide how to respond to a jury summons. If you simply disregard it, you might get away with it for a certain amount of time. Sooner or later, however, the law will catch up to you and you may face significant consequences, such as a hefty fine, prison time, or both.
So it’s in your best interest to comply with your civic duty and appear for jury service, request a postponement, or provide a valid excuse to exempt yourself from service. In the end, serving on a jury may become a rewarding experience and help you gain a deeper understanding of how the legal process works to protect us all.