Phila. jury duty scofflaws get their day in court

Posted: May 23, 2014

In criminal justice jargon, they were recidivists: People who have dodged jury duty two, three, four times.

On Wednesday, 60 of them packed Courtroom 505 of the city's Criminal Justice Center after Common Pleas Court Administrative Judge John W. Herron made them an offer they couldn't refuse: Show up or be arrested.

Welcome to Philadelphia's Juror Scofflaw Court, Herron's revival of a program he launched in 2000, when only one in five people summoned for jury duty ever showed.

Herron might be happier today with that earlier level of participation. Of the 700,000 people who'll be summoned this year, just 13 percent will comply.

"Failures to appear have escalated to an unacceptable level," Herron told the scofflaws. "It's becoming a catastrophe."

He gave those in the crowd two options: plead guilty, pay $50, and get a new date for jury service, or plead not guilty, get a hearing, and risk being held in contempt of court, fined up to $500, and spending up to 10 days in jail.

Eyes widened. The 70-year-old judge, an affable man with a lilting voice and dry sense of humor, gave them a few minutes to think it over - and this warning:

"I did it before and I'll do it again."

Not surprisingly, most chose Option A. They lined up, were sworn in, promised to pay $50 within 15 days, and got a date for jury service.

Most were contrite, responded to questions, but said little else, and seemed happy to move on as quickly as possible.

"I don't want a criminal record," one man said, adding that he was homeless after his marriage broke up and that his ex never told him about the summonses.

Like most jury panels, the scofflaws were a cross-section: white, black, Hispanic; some unemployed and poor, others not; some in business suits and others in sweats and jeans or work uniforms, including a pastry chef in his white tunic.

Only seven pleaded not guilty, and Herron acquitted them all. Some were seriously ill, others had family or work problems, and others said they never got a summons or were homeless at the time.

Next time, Herron told them, just call the jury office and it will accommodate them with a new date.

"We're easy," he added.

Also not surprisingly, 32 people didn't show up for Scofflaw Court.

Herron issued bench warrants for each. They will be arrested and held in custody pending contempt-of-court hearings before Herron or Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart.

Two drew special attention.

Vallahra El Harre Bey, 54, had written saying she was part of the "Sovereign Nation Movement" and that the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions had no authority over her.

"How wrong she is," Herron said before ordering "a priority on her arrest."

That drew the only laughter from the somber audience.

Drayton Simmons, 30, who claimed to be a New Jersey resident. He had faxed a somewhat blurry N.J. driver's license. Pennsylvania officials, however, had confirmed that Simmons' Pennsylvania license was valid and New Jersey said his license there was not.

"Put a priority on his arrest as well," Herron ordered.

Given the number of AWOL jurors, court administrators have had to cut the size of panels of prospective jurors from 50 to 40 in criminal trials and 40 to 30 in civil trials.

It's also expensive. Jury Commissioner Daniel A. Rendine said 37 percent of those summoned for jury duty never bother to respond.

Rendine said those 200,000 people cost taxpayers $90,000 in postage for the original letters and $76,000 for computer-generated follow-up postcards: "A totally unnecessary and wasted expense."

Asked afterward whether he believed the 32 scofflaws could be located, Herron smiled.

"It will be amazingly easy," he said. "We have 55 individuals in our warrant unit who do this for probationers and others. For this group, their next appearance . . . will not be a pleasant one."

215-854-2985 @joeslobo

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