Under a new law passed by the California legislature and signed last Friday by Gov. Jerry Brown, jurors found to be tweeting, texting, or using smartphones to discuss or research their case could face up to six months jail time for criminal contempt. Specifically, the law adds to existing jury instructions, requiring trial judges to inform jurors that bans on outside research apply to all forms of wireless and electronic communication.

The law was prompted by growing concern over jurors’ use of cell phones during trials, after a number of troubling incidents came to light. Among them, jurors have used their phones to look up a defendant’s criminal record and to check out the crime scene via the Internet, information that was not presented at trial and could therefore be prejudicial. Accordingly, judges have declared mistrials and overturned jury verdicts in some of these cases after learning of the juror misconduct.

In perhaps the most egregious case on record, a jury foreman in a Southern California murder case used his camera phone during deliberations to snap a photo of the alleged murder weapon, a 15-inch saw-toothed knife, and the later posted the photo to his public blog. The juror used his blog as a running commentary on the trial, calling a defense lawyer “whacked out” and posting descriptions he obtained through Internet research of the difference between a medical examiner and a coroner.

The California courts system’s Judicial Council has noted that jurors’ use of electronic devices has become “an increasingly significant threat to the integrity of the justice system.” The law is scheduled to go into effect next January, and it will be interesting to see how quickly other states follow suit.

– Henson Millsap

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