Cell phone technology interferes in court case verdicts

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The technological revolution that the world is experiencing is old news these days. Blackberrys are no longer reserved for high-powered businessmen; rather, I pass more people in the hallways on campus who have either a Blackberry or an iPhone than don’t. And it’s not even just the college and high-school crowds that are part of the cell phone craze: most kids as young as elementary and middle school carry around at least a simple cell phone, which is a shocking contrast to the long year I spent begging my parents for my first phone.

And with the changes in technology, many changes are being made in the way things were done. Now, not only do teachers have to worry about a cell going off in class, but they also have to be alert for students attempting to cheat via text messaging. And when students sit down to take the strictly enforced “you may never, ever speak of your answers to anyone” AP tests, cell phones are put into double-digit piles in the front of the room. But I never thought that adults, long finished with the days of exams and homework assignments, would find a way to use their smartphones to cheat in real life. I was wrong.

At least three recent court cases had to be thrown out due to cell phone uses in the courtroom. Jurors in each of these cases used their smartphones to access the Internet for either Google or Wikipedia to get information, look up definitions of confusing words, or read online versions of news stories concerning the case, after they were specifically told not to by the judge at the beginning of the trial.

I will be the first to admit that more often than not, I do not understand the complex and convoluted legal rules that mire courtroom proceedings. With bringing forward witnesses, entering evidence, and calling the ever-important objection, things can get confusing to an outsider fast. What I do understand, however, is that you’re only allowed to know what the judge decides that you are allowed to know. There’s a reason for objections and evidence, and it’s to help ensure that the trial is fair, as ensured by the Constitution. When a judge tells you not to do something, such as look for information about the case, you don’t. And yet, people did. Why? One juror stated that he was simply curious.

Not only are people using their phones to act as lawyer and gather their own information about a trial, but they are using them to update sites like Facebook and Twitter with information about the cases. Even with my limited legal knowledge, I know that this is a no-no. How seriously can a juror really be taking a case if he makes sarcastic comments about it on Twitter? I sure wouldn’t want people chiming in on — and possibly influencing — my court case via a juror’s status update.

Aside from the legal and ethical issues that going against a judge’s instructions brings about, we also cannot ignore the financial effects of these mistrials. When a case has to be thrown out at the end of the trial because someone confesses to, or is caught, tampering like these jurors did, thousands of dollars are wasted in court proceedings when the case has to be thrown out and more money is spent in appeal trials. The economy is clearly an important issue to everyone right now, and losing money because jurors couldn’t follow instructions is something no one needs.

In this technologically driven age, people want to know whatever they want, whenever they want it. Boundaries mean very little anymore — you can search the Internet for practically anything you want, from celebrities’ sex tapes to blog entries on what people had for dinner last night or their opinion on politics or religion. And this ease of having information at our fingertips has made us feel entitled to information, and made us think it’s okay to research anything and everything at any time, and to feel that while rules do exist, we are obviously the exception to them. After all, in these cases, people aren’t spreading any malicious rumors — they just want to know the truth.

But while jurors may think that they’re helping to ensure a fair trial by doing some background research on their own, they need to realize that they’re not. In going against the judge’s directions, they are messing with the whole system of legal proceedings. Each juror is supposed to keep his or her opinions and deliberations about the trial to him or herself, in order to keep the trial fair. When they search the Internet for information, there is a high likelihood that the information they find will skew their opinion, whether they realize it or not. This is especially dangerous if their source is a site like Wikipedia, where the accuracy can never be verified and could be quickly changing. So in trying to help make a trial as fair as it can be, they are actually helping to do just the opposite.

But is there really a way to police this trend? Even if jurors had to surrender their cell phones while in the courtroom, they would likely just look things up on their computer when they got home. And sequestering every jury definitely doesn’t sound like a feasible solution. There’s no way for the court to make sure that jurors do what they’re told in this case — just as there’s no way for them to be sure a juror isn’t discussing the case with others and asking for their input. There are some things that just cannot be policed. So the only real solution is relying on people’s own — and their fellow jurors’ — sense of integrity. If the judge tells them not to look up extra information, they just shouldn’t do it. Simple as that.