Getting a jury duty summons is something that most people greet with very little enthusiasm. Certainly some of us enjoy doing our civic duty, but most of us have jobs and lives and the idea of spending hours at the courthouse waiting to see if we’ll be chosen for a trial that could drag on for days or even weeks doesn’t particularly appeal to us.
Here is something to consider: although it may be a hassle, jury duty is actually an extremely important privilege. As Avvo lawyer Patrick Mahaney puts it, “Jury service is more important than voting or holding a public office; jury service is a fundamental duty that every citizen owes to his or her fellow citizens as [a] participant in the democratic and rule of law society that we wish to perpetuate. Without citizens serving as jurors, our system of law will quickly fail.”
Despite its importance, sometimes we really need to be excused from jury duty. Here’s what you need to know:
Ignore a Jury Summons at Your Peril
Your initial response to a jury summons, especially if it’s from a state you no longer live in or for a day you absolutely cannot make, is to ignore it. A jury summons may seem no more important to you than a parking ticket, but ignoring it could land you in hot water with the court. The likely outcome of simply not showing up for jury duty is that the judge will issue a bench warrant.
A bench warrant is essentially an arrest warrant, but it is issued by a judge rather than the police. Like an arrest warrant, a bench warrant gives the police the right to arrest you, anytime, anywhere, including at home, at work, at school, or out on a date with your sweetheart. It is a non-emergency warrant, though, which means the cops probably aren’t going to come knocking on your door. You do run the risk of being hauled in with cuffs on if you get pulled over for a traffic violation—the police will see it when they look you up.
If you are a first-time offender, it’s likely you will simply be slapped with a fine and made to promise you’ll show up in the future. More than one bench warrant, however, could land you in the local jail.
Exemptions from Jury Duty
In order to be legally qualified to serve on a jury, you have to meet certain requirements. You will be exempted from jury duty if you do not meet all of the following:
• U.S. citizen
• Age 18 or over
• Reside in the judicial district for at least one year
• Proficient enough in English to fill out the juror qualification form
• Lacking a disqualifying mental or physical condition
• Not subject to felony charges punishable by imprisonment for more than one year
• Never convicted of a felony (unless civil rights have been restored)
Even if you meet all the basic requirements, you may still be exempt. Common exemptions include:
• Active duty members of the U.S. Armed Forces
• Members of a professional fire or police department
• Public officers who are actively engaged in the full-time performance of public duties
Beyond these exemptions, individual judicial districts have their own rules about who is reasonably excused from serving on a jury. Some common exemptions include being over the age of 70, having served on a jury in the past two years, being in certain occupational classes, being on a volunteer fire or rescue squad, or if serving would cause you “undue hardship or extreme inconvenience.” If you do think you qualify for exemption, you must request it in writing to the court clerk.
Common Reasons to be Excused
Even if you don’t have an exemption and find yourself at the courthouse with your fellow potential jurors, it is extremely easy to get excused from serving. When you are called in for jury selection, the attorneys and/or judge will give you several options to excuse yourself—for example, they’ll ask everyone who has some sort of prejudice about the case to excuse themselves.
Often, if you aren’t available on the dates of the trial, you can be excused for that reason. Essentially, if you are truly opposed to participating, neither attorney will want you on the jury and they won’t make it difficult for you to be excused.
However, if you really don’t have a good reason to get out of jury duty, you should consider seeing it through. It’s the service our democracy is based on, and that’s not something to take lightly.