Juror who Googled defendant escapes custody

Juror who Googled defendant escapes custody

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On 16 July 2015, Charlotte Potts, 34, found herself in the Divisional Court in front of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, and Mr Justice Mitting in respect of a contempt of court. It was widely reported that Potts was sentenced to 6 months’ imprisonment suspended for 1 year.

What happened?

Potts was sitting on a jury hearing a trial in relation to allegations of a serious sexual offence. One evening during the jury’s deliberations, she typed the accused’s name into Google and found material prejudicial to the defendant. The following day – reportedly “plagued with guilt” – she informed her fellow jurors of what she had done and that as a result she had changed her opinion of whether or not the defendant was guilty.

The judge was made aware (we presume, by another juror) and the four day trial was abandoned.

Criminal offence?

There are newly created jury offences, inserted into the Juries Act 1974 by the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, however it appears that Potts was dealt with by way of contempt of court – this is so for two reasons, firstly that her actions occurred before the enactment of the new offences (and the principle against retroactivity bars her from being charged with an offence that did not exist at the time of her actions) and secondly this was a case before the Divisional Court and the new offences would be dealt with by the Crown Court.

Contempt is not a criminal offence and is rather in a class of its own (for more information, see the Law Commission’s report on juror misconduct). So, if Potts was not dealt with for a criminal offence, how was she “sentenced”?

There is a power to impose custody for contempt of court, and this is called “committal to custody” or “committal to prison”. The maximum period is 2 years and there is also a power to impose a fine of up to £2,500. This is not a sentence of imprisonment as is usually understood by the term, and so a suspended sentence order is not available.

So, how can the sentence be suspended? Well there is a power in the Civil Procedure Rules (see rule 81.29) that allows the court to suspend the period in custody for such period or on such terms as specified.

So, it appears the “sentence” is lawful, but the news reports are a little misleading / uninformed.

8 COMMENTS

  1. It may be that this defendant was lucky – but of course there is always a lot more to a case than what the press reports.
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    At least it was not a gender-based disparity.
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    In siblinghood as ever!

  2. Perhaps she just wanted to find out who the defendant actually was. I’m sure some smart defence lawyer had his previous blocked from evidence and was painting a picture of a wonderful human being that had been persecuted. Maybe this woman just wanted to know ALL of the facts, not just what someone allows them to know.

  3. I dare say. But if the defendant has previous form the prosecution can apply (in the absence of the jury) or permission to introduce it and the judge will determine the application. That’s what the judge is there for.

      • I certainly hope it’s not many, because there aren’t many situations in which a prior conviction would have much evidential value, and it is highly likely that a jury would attach more importance to it than it is worth. This trial seems to have been of a sexual offence, and there must be hundreds of thousands of sexual offenders out there. So, even if you thought that the culprit in this case had to have form, knowledge that he actually did have form would by itself, only reduce the probability of guilt to something like 1 in 100,000.

        Of course, when combined with other evidence, prior convictions might have some evidential value, but you need to be quite smart at maths to work out when and how that happens. I suspect that very few judges, and even fewer juries actually have that knowledge (which is why I’m always a little bit uneasy when I hear about civil cases being decided “on the balance of probability”).

        • It not about maths or probabilities, its about establishing a pattern of behaviour of a defendant. If a serial burgler is on trial for burglary and the jury had access to his previous behaviour then its likely they would (and should in my opinion) take this into account when assessing the current evidence. But there are more important issues such as when evidence relating to the actual case is ruled inadmissable, then the jury does not get a full picture and is working with limited information. We should trust them to rule it out or ignore it themselves if they wish to,

          • It cannot fail to be about probabilities, because the jury has to assess whether the probability of the defendants guilt exceeds the “reasonable doubt” threshold required for conviction. Knowing that someone has a pattern of behaviour is of very little use if lots of other people have similar patterns of behaviour, which is likely to be the case if that pattern is burglary, or sexual assault, or some other form of criminality. Knowledge of such patterns is of even less use where there is a possibility that those patterns are one of the reasons why the defendant has been arrested in the first place. If past convictions were routinely deemed admissable then police would end up taking an “arrest the usual suspects” approach. Juries, and judges, would virtually never be in a position to use “propensity to commit” evidence sensibly. They wouldn’t have enough knowledge about the role that such evidence had played prior to conviction and , even if they did science tells us that all of us, no matter how intelligent, are very bad at assessing the way that such information affects the probability that a given hypothesis is true. Routinely allowing past convictions to be used in evidence would be pretty much guaranteed to result in frequent miscarriages of justice, and it is entirely right that we don’t allow it.

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