When Can a Trial Judge Discharge Jurors Who Fail to Appear ?
In People v. Jeanty (94 NY2d 507), a sworn juror telephoned the court and stated he had been involved in a car accident, was not feeling well and was going to the hospital.
He informed the court a few hours later that he still was not feeling well and did not know when he would return for service. He was dismissed over defendant's objection and replaced by an alternate.
In People v. Jones (94 NY2d 507), a companion case to Jeanty, two jurors called the courtroom to say they would be absent from service.
One juror was ill while the other's business had been burglarized the night before.
The Judge dismissed them ruling that since they would be absent for at least two hours he had the authority to replace them.
Finally, in People v. Artis (94 NY2d 507), another companion case, a juror was replaced when, after feeling ill during the trial, she was unable to ascertain when she might return.
It is true that in all three of these cases, each juror failed to state a specific time when they would return for service.
However, there is strong language in the Jeanty decision which makes plain that the statute was meant to include that scenario and provide the Trial Judge with the authority to dismiss absent jurors even where the court has knowledge of when those jurors will return.
In Jeanty (supra), the defendant argued that the newly enacted "two hour rule" only applied if the court could not in any way contact the jurors and afford them an opportunity to explain their absence.
However, if the court did ascertain the reason for the jurors' absence then the court was required to wait at least one day.
The Jeanty decision flatly rejected that position, noting that the amended statute makes no distinction between jurors who remain out of contact and those who explain their absence.
Furthermore, the Court failed to see why out-of-contact jurors should be treated differently than jurors who explain their absence.
The Court noted that "[b]oth situations delay a trial, and the history of the amendment clearly evinces an intent on the part of the Legislature to avoid delays and to provide precise guidelines to trial courts deciding whether to discharge jurors who fail to appear." (Supra, at 514-515.)
The overarching principle of the statute, then, is to reduce delay and conduct trials efficiently and timely.
A delay is not mitigated by the fact that the court knows a juror can return the following day, nor is that delay any less burdensome to the rest of the jury simply because the court is aware that the delay is finite.
In either case, the primary intent of the Legislature is frustrated.
This is particularly true in cases where the jury was specifically instructed as to the length of the trial.