OKEECHOBEE — If there’s one thing in this world you want to avoid, it’s upsetting the man in the black robe. ’Cause if you do, it’s not gonna be pretty.
If you don’t think so, just ask a local man and woman who both decided to skip out on jury duty. In both cases, they received their summonses for two separate trials and both showed up for jury duty. But when they were excused for lunch, neither returned.
Those actions left two local circuit judges very unhappy.
Although they were each looking at a jail sentence of five months and 29 days, they got by without spending time in the Okeechobee County Jail. And, each incident was handled differently.
In the man’s case, Circuit Court Judge Dan Vaughn gave him a stern talking to Monday morning, March 14.
“Judge Vaughn lectured him for about 20 minutes,” said assistant state attorney Ashley Albright. “Judge Vaughn definitely made it clear to him the importance of jury duty.”
In the woman’s case, Circuit Court Judge Gary Sweet took a different approach.
When she was served with an order to show cause by an Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office deputy, the 25-year-old woman went back before Judge Sweet on Feb. 4 for a contempt hearing.
“She told the judge she’s hard of hearing and didn’t understand what time she was supposed to come back,” explained Mr. Albright. “At that first hearing, the judge had purchased a book — “Why Jury Duty Matters.” He ordered her to read the forward, the epilogue, the Bill of Rights and a couple of chapters.”
The woman was back before the judge on Feb. 18 to give Judge Sweet a book report. And, to return his book.
“Do you have my book? Did you read it?” inquired the soft-spoken judge.
She began to tell the judge some of the things she picked up from reading the book including: “Everyone has the right to a trial.”
When she finished her report, Judge Sweet told her about the penalty she had just narrowly avoided.
“You’re getting off easy. You could have spent several nights in the county jail,” he said.
“I appreciate it,” the young woman answered softly.
“When you’re excused for lunch, are you going to come back?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” she replied.
And with that, she was excused.
However, it wasn’t quite that easy for the 31-year-old man.
To compound his already serious problem, Mr. Albright said the man lied to the judge at his first contempt hearing.
“He said he came back (from lunch), but got a call from school saying his child had been taken to the hospital with possible seizures,” said Mr. Albright. “So I asked some questions; got some information; and, asked the judge to let us look into it.”
The man’s next hearing was postponed, and the prosecutor went to work.
“After further investigation, we learned the child was in school all day and never went to the hospital,” offered the prosecutor.
Now, the man is not just looking at a contempt of court charge but a felony charge of perjury.
When the man went before Judge Vaughn on Monday morning, Mr. Albright asked him one simple question: “I asked him if he was going to enter a plea, or if he was going to trial? He asked for an attorney.”
Mr. Albright said he was prepared to set a trial date and “intended to call the teacher and principal, and get certified records from the hospital.”
Instead, Judge Vaughn assigned the man an attorney from the public defender’s office. And, after a brief conference with that attorney, the man decided to enter a plea to the contempt charge.
He also decided to tell the truth on why he didn’t come back from lunch.
“I really left because I just didn’t think they were going to pick me,” he said.
He then apologized to Judge Vaughn.
“Judge Vaughn lectured him 15 to 20 minutes and told him he could be jailed up to six months for contempt,” said Mr. Albright.
The judge then let the man go.
While both of these incidents are rather unusual, getting people to show up for jury duty in Okeechobee County isn’t.
“If we send out 300 summonses, we’ll get about 100 that will actually show up,” said Okeechobee Clerk of Courts Sharon Robertson. “Normally, we’ll get between one-fourth and one-third that will show up.”
She explained her office will receive “a lot of returned mail” where the person has moved and their forwarding has expired.
“And, we have a lot of people over 70 years of age who choose not to serve,” she added.
“It’s a very large problem — jurors failing to show up when we need them,” offered Mr. Albright. “Part of it is attributable to not updating their driver’s license information. Another part is them not taking it seriously.”
He explained if someone receives a jury summons and chooses to ignore it, they could be arrested for contempt of court and jailed for a term of five months and 29 days.
The prosecutor explained that jail term by saying contempt of court is basically a civil proceeding and is decided by a bench trial, not a jury trial.
And Florida law dictates that a non-jury trial cannot have a punishment of more than six months.
With that in mind, Mr. Albright offered some very simple but sage advice: “Take your summons seriously!”
Otherwise, it could be you standing before that man in the black robe and trying to explain why you didn’t.
Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News