Juror Scofflaw Court: Three fined, spend the afternoon in jail

Posted: June 06, 2014

They're from different parts of the city and had nothing in common - except for their predawn Wednesday wake-up call: court warrant officers arresting them for failing to appear for jury duty.

Actually, it was more than that. Not only did they ignore at least two calls for jury duty, they ignored a summons telling them to appear in court May 21 or be held in contempt.

Yes, we're talking about scofflaws in Philadelphia's new Juror Scofflaw Court.

Two of the three - Timothy Shissler, 42, of Frankford, and John Sparks, 56, of Brewerytown - pleaded guilty before unsmiling Common Pleas Court Judges John W. Herron and Jeffrey P. Minehart.

Neither of the accused made any comment. Each was fined $300, given a new date for jury duty, and spent the rest of the day in custody.

The third defendant, Shelby J. Stanton, 50, of Overbrook, elected to plead not guilty and have a hearing before the judges. Stanton told Minehart she had been ill and was on disability, but had no explanation for why she didn't call the Jury Commission to ask for a deferment.

"I've been in a very dark place," Stanton said.

Minehart found Stanton guilty of contempt and fined her $400. Like Shissler and Sparks, Stanton got a new date for jury duty and spent until 5 p.m. in a holding cell.

"What time is it now?" Stanton asked as deputies led her from court.

The deputy court administrator, Richard T. McSorley, who acted as prosecutor, said all three ignored multiple notices to appear for jury duty and then for court. "We even sent them a letter saying there was a bench warrant issued for their arrest," McSorley said.

Herron, the Common Pleas Court administrative judge, has revived Juror Scofflaw Court, a program he launched in 2000, in an effort to convince people of the importance of jury duty.

Of 700,000 people to be summoned this year, Herron said, about 13 percent will appear on their appointed day. It costs taxpayers $166,000 to mail repeated notices to scofflaws - and even more to have court warrant officers hunt them down and arrest them, and have judges conduct contempt hearings.

The lack of jurors appearing for court has forced officials to cut the size of panels of prospective jurors from 50 to 40 for criminal trials and 40 to 30 for civil trials. Scofflaw Court, say officials, is a last resort.

At the first Scofflaw Court hearing on May 21, 92 people were ordered to appear. Fifty-three pleaded guilty, were fined $50, and got a new date for jury service. One person was subpoenaed in error and seven asked for hearings, at which they were found not guilty after giving reasonable explanations for not appearing.

Arrest warrants were issued for 31 people who failed to appear at that hearing. Eleven got the message and said they would appear Wednesday. They pleaded guilty, were fined $100, and got new court dates.

McSorley said that arrest warrants were outstanding for 18 of the original 31 and that when they were arrested, new contempt hearings would be held. Herron has also asked for another session of Scofflaw Court to give a new group of no-shows a chance to do the right thing.

"This is something we don't want to do," McSorley said. "All we ask of citizens is to obey the law, vote, and appear for jury duty.

"People just don't think there's anything wrong with it and there aren't going to be any consequences. Well, it is wrong and there are consequences," he added.


215-854-2985 @joeslobo


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