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Bergen judge finds jury foreman in contempt for doing online research in drug trial

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: In what apparently is a first in New Jersey, a judge in Hackensack this week fined a jury foreman $500 for going online to research the possible penalties for a defendant in a drug case. Deliberations ended in a mistrial after he shared his concerns with fellow jurors.

A “clear message” needed to be sent that “jurors must heed instructions to refrain from conducting independent research,” Superior Court Judge Peter E. Doyne wrote in finding Daniel M. Kaminsky in criminal contempt of court.

Doyne characterized Kaminsky as a “sincere, conscientious person” who “mistakenly sought to fulfill his duty as jury foreman and lead the jury to a proper verdict” in the case of Luis Montas of the Bronx, who was tried in Superior Court in Hackensack in December on charges of selling an undercover officer 1,500 Ecstasy pills.

However, the judge found that “when a juror conducts independent research, he bypasses the rules of evidence and allows the information to evade the judge’s scrutiny, thereby running the risk he is considering improper information and, consequently, reducing the chances of a just verdict.”

Kaminsky’s purpose as a juror “was not to weigh the merits of a particular punishment,” Doyne said, noting that the foreman’s “not guilty” vote “may well have been motivated solely by what he thought would be an unjust punishment.”

His role, the judge said, “was to determine guilt or lack thereof…. [N]o more and no less.”

Other jurors said they told Kaminsky that “the penalty is not our thing,” the judge noted in his decision, released Monday. “We’re supposed to just talk about the facts of the case and decide whether he’s guilty or not guilty of the charges that were filed.”

Some even scolded Kaminsky, telling him “you’ve got to get [the question of punishment] out of your mind,” it said.

“It is clear, then, the other members of the jury understood clearly their duty to base their decision solely on what was presented to them during the trial, without resort to outside research and without regard to additional considerations,” Doyne found.

Superior Court Judge James J. Guida specifically instructed all of them more than once not to independently research issues in the case, Doyne said.

“Your deliberations should be based on the evidence in the case without any outside influence or opinions of relatives or friends,” Guida told jurors after they were sworn. “Additionally, I must instruct you not to read any newspaper articles, or search for, or research information relating to the case, including any participants in the trial, through any means, including electronic means.

“Do not do any research on the Internet, in libraries, in the newspapers, or any other manner — or conduct any investigation about this case. . . . Also do not research any information about  this case, the law, or — again — the people involved, including the parties, the witnesses, the lawyers, the judge, or the court personnel.”

He reminded them before each break and at the end of each day in the trial, the Doyne decision on file in Hackensack says.

The court system specifically determines what information “may and may not be considered by a jury,” Doyne wrote. That means “competent evidence, which is reliable, relevant, and not unduly prejudicial,” vetted by a judge and the attorneys for both sides. This helps to weed out “incompetent or irrelevant information,” he said.

After all: A defendant’s liberty hangs in the balance,.

Jurors in the Montas case ended up deadlocked, leading to a mistrial on Dec. 16, 2011.

Details then emerged that landed Kaminsky in hot water, Doyne said.

As it turns out, an alternate juror who is a neighbor of another Bergen judge reported that Kaminsky “independently conducted an [I]nternet search” and determined that “the crime with which Montas was charged was between ten and twenty years in state prison,” he wrote.

Kaminsky “purportedly took the position he could not vote for a guilty verdict, which he presumed would send Montas, who was in his mid-twenties, to prison for a minimum of ten years,” Doyne said.

With the attorneys involved in the case monitoring, Guida interviewed the woman, who said she was told after the mistrial was declared that Kaminsky “didn’t Google the specific case but he Googled the punishment for the specific case and . . . this kid [Montas] could have to serve ten to twenty years, and he wasn’t sure that he could really vote on . . . or judge for putting someone away for ten to twenty years.”

Kaminsky was “very emotional, sobbing” in the parking lot after the mistrial was declared, and he was “really upset” about the case, the juror said.

“I’m sure probably every case someone doesn’t follow the rules. . . .,” she said on the record. “I think that probably happens a lot.”

Doyne expressed concern over the phenomenon, citing the cases of jurors in England who were imprisoned for misconduct, and a Florida juror who tried to “friend” a defendant on Facebook.  He also referred to a New York judge who requires jurors to sign an agreement not to do any online research.

A second juror independently contacted the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office with similar concerns in the Montas case, Doyne said.

That juror later told Guida that Kaminsky became “literally sick to his stomach” over the prospect of “put[ting] someone’s child in prison for 30 years, because that’s what he – he understood the penalty [to be].”

More significantly, the juror said that Kaminsky purportedly “was listing things that he was trying to put into the trial or into the evidence that didn’t exist” and, significantly, “[tried] to convince himself of beyond any kind of doubt that he could convince us that this kid was innocent, only for the fact that he might have to go to prison.”

The juror expressed concern that Kaminsky “had influenced two other jurors,” the decision says.

One of them “said that she literally turned off from listening to anymore testimony in the middle of the second detective’s testimony, totally turned it off, didn’t listen to any more.”

“The two jurors ‘did not want to have any conversation whatsoever’ and, disturbingly, rather than engage in deliberations, ‘they would just put their hands up’ and recommend the jurors ‘just tell the judge we can’t make a decision, we’ve got to go home, we’ve got to take care of my daughter, I’ve got to work.’ “

Kaminsky didn’t contest the allegations but said “already knew of the possible punishment as a result of attending drug education classes at his children’s schools and merely conducted the research to confirm what he already knew,” Doyne wrote.

He also said he didn’t believe he was violating any instruction, because his research “did not involve Montas or the facts of the case itself,” the judge added. Kaminsky also said the potential penalties didn’t influence his vote, and that “his discussion with his fellow jurors was intended to remind them of ‘their solemn duty.’ ”

He nonetheless violated a judicial order, Doyne said, noting that Guida’s instructions “were more than sufficient to put Kaminsky on notice [that] his research was prohibited.”

“Our system of justice cannot function if a juror’s distrust of, or lack of confidence in, the court legitimized his disobedience of its orders or if a judge’s instructions were deemed merely ‘advisory,’ with jurors free to violate them when they saw fit, even if in good conscience,” Doyne emphasized. “Jurors are not at liberty to disregard the court’s instructions, even when they fear obedience would somehow result in injustice.”

The maximum penalty for a criminal contempt conviction in New Jersey is six months in prison, a $1,000 fine or both. However, Doyne noted that Kaminsky, a father of three, recently lost his job. What’s more, the judge said, the purpose of his finding is to deter others from doing the same thing – not primarily to punish Kaminsky.

For Doyne, a fine of $500 “strikes the correct balance of appropriate consideration of attendant circumstances, on the one hand, and, on the other, the vindication of the court’s interest in ensuring compliance with its orders and, it is hoped, placing the public on notice the consequences of juror misconduct are real.”

The contempt finding “is a formal declaration Kaminsky willfully and knowingly disobeyed the court’s order,” he added. “It is not a pronouncement Kaminsky is evil or even had malevolent intentions when he made the decision to discourage the reoccurrence of juror misconduct, whether by the conducting of independent research or any other means.”

Doyne said he “understands instant access to seemingly endless amounts of information is a reality of today’s world. And this fact, by and large, should be celebrated.

“That being said, this court rejects the notion the American courtroom, with its constraints and controls developed over the centuries, with its methodical and deliberate means of proceeding, is somehow incompatible with or outdated in today’s world of high-speed information on demand. Indeed, the proliferation of electronic information renders the sterilized atmosphere of a courtroom even more important.

“Conversely, the court remains confident American jurors, and more specifically New Jersey’s jurors, possess sufficient discipline, patience, and sense of civic duty to obey a court’s order to refrain from researching a case on their own. With today’s decision, jurors should be aware the American court system, as well as their own liberty, depend on their ability not to betray that confidence.”

The judge also recommended that the Supreme Court Committee on Model Criminal Jury Charges be revised.

“To better communicate the importance of obedience to the court’s instructions, it may be appropriate to further explain reasons for the prohibition on juror research and, even, possible punishments for disobedience,” he wrote.

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