KINGMAN - If your idea of freedom and the pursuit of happiness is ignoring a jury summons from Mohave County Superior Court, you could be in trouble.
Nearly 60 people were hauled into court earlier this fall to explain why they failed to appear for jury duty. Many of them left with a $250 fine to pay when they couldn't convince Judge Steven Conn or Judge Billy Sipe they had a legitimate excuse, according to Mohave County Superior Court Clerk Virlynn Tinnell.
"I don't know what to tell you, except we need people to show up for jury duty," said Tinnell on Monday.
A growing problem
Conn and Sipe decided to summon people who failed to show up for jury duty at a time when the number of trials are up and so is the percentage of county residents who ignore the call to serve on a jury.
Tinnell said Sipe set the bar at a $250 fine when he held his hearings, known as an order to show cause and Conn, she said, followed his lead. The men could have levied a maximum $500 fine.
That wasn't the only break people received.
"We only summoned jurors who missed three times or more," said Tinnell. "They had the opportunity to explain why they failed to appear and some had legitimate reasons. They were snowbirds who didn't get their mail or people who had a medical emergency, but those who said they ignored it because they thought "it was no big deal" were fined, she said.
"Each of them had to drive here, take the day off and they didn't get paid for their mileage - and they didn't get the whopping $12 a day we pay them to show up," said Tinnell.
Trials more common
Mohave County has a high number of trials for its population. There were 65 in superior court in 2013, 62 last year, and 74 in 2015, with more on the docket before the calendar changes to 2016. Tinnell said 19 percent of people summoned in 2013 failed to appear. The percentage jumped to 25 percent in 2014 and is currently at 26 percent this year.
"That's a lot of expense," said Tinnell. "We send out two times as many summonses as we need to because we don't know what the failure to appear rate is going to be. We also have the time and energy of staff, and postage."
Tinnell said there are valid reasons people can get a pass on jury duty. "I think it's important for people to realize there is a questionnaire in the summons. There are specific reasons to be excused," she said. "It can be medical, you can be a fulltime caregiver, it could be financial if you live below the poverty line. A lot of people ask to be excused, but they won't provide the backup we need."
It's not like the court has a zero tolerance policy.
"We give them two 'gimmes,'" she said. "We let them out two times, we give them two self-excuses, but the third time they have to be here."
To put things into perspective, Tinnell said nearly 2,400 Mohave County residents failed to appear for jury duty this year out of nearly 9,100 who were summoned. More than 2,000 of the 9,100 were excused.
That's a lot of people who don't appreciate the importance of jury duty in the American justice system. So far this year, the court has spent more than $273,000 paying prospective jurors' mileage and the per diem. Nearly $11,000 more has been spent on paying grand jurors that meet every Thursday regarding potential indictments.
More than a duty
"It is a duty," said Tinnell. "More importantly, I think it's a right, a right in that we would want a jury of our peers, whether in a civil case or criminal case."
Perhaps even more importantly, jury duty might be a small inconvenience, but it isn't the torture some believe it to be.
Most people who are seated on a jury have told Tinnell they were pleasantly surprised. "They'll say, what a great experience that was. Can I sign up to do it again," she said. "We have people who call and give us every excuse in the book, but then they are seated and they thoroughly enjoy it because they realize how important it is. They get here and they focus, and they are surprised how the system works."
Jurors critical to system
In short, American-style justice doesn't work if potential jurors don't show up to do their part. The attorneys present their respective cases, the judge rules on the law and the jury is the trier of facts.
Tinnell said judges, her staff and other courthouse employees try "very hard" to make jury duty as pleasant as possible. At the end of the day, however, citizens who receive a jury summons should consider it more than a civic duty, but also a "responsibility and an honor," she said.
"We all have to be willing to give because all of us are taking to have the same freedoms."
She also debunked a common myth about who gets summoned. "Our jury lists are comprised of licensed drivers and voter registration. A lot of people don't register to vote because they don't want to get called for jury duty, but you might as well register to vote because if you drive, you're on the list."
Showing up is rewarded
The upside for those who really don't want to serve on a jury is that once you do show up and sign in, your name is removed from the jury pool for the next two years, even if you are not chosen for the jury, she said.
Superior Court pays mileage and $12 a day for people summoned to court for jury duty.
Those not selected typically spend less than half a day at the downtown Kingman courthouse, she said. The alternative is to ignore the summons and wait for your own day in court and a potential fine.