Although it is a civic duty, many are reluctant to serve on a jury. Some will even go to great lengths to get excused. But being confrontational and disrespectful to a judge, so that you're found in contempt of court and fined $1000, would seem a bit extreme, don't you think? Well, that is the fate which befell Stephen Caruso in the Matter of Caruso v. Wetzel.
While impaneling a jury in a criminal proceeding--which involved a kidnapping victim forced into a vehicle at gunpoint--Mr. Caruso, a prospective juror in the case, was asked a series of questions as to his ability to be fair and impartial in the matter. The following bizarre exchange is reported to have occurred:
[CARUSO]: I'm not going to be fair and impartial in this case. I have been held up three times at gunpoint. One time almost identical, sir, to this.When he continued to avoid answering the question about his occupation, the exchange with the Judge escalated to the point where Caruso was removed from the courtroom. Later that day, Caruso was summoned back and instructed by the Judge to return the following morning with counsel to "show cause" why he should not be held in "criminal contempt."
THE COURT: You would judge the case on what happened to you even if you were satisfied he was not guilty, you would vote on what happened to you, right?
[CARUSO]: I am already looking at him, I think he is a "scumbag."
THE COURT: First of all, that is an insult not only to him, ... to me, and the other people in the room. What do you do [for] a living?
[CARUSO]: What does that matter?
The next morning, when he appeared with his attorney, Caruso was found guilty of criminal contempt and fined $1000 for "using such pejorative vulgarity," being "disorderly, contemptuous or insolent," and for causing "a serious breach in the jury selection process." (We are advised that the remaining members of the jury panel had to be questioned as to whether they could continue to be fair and impartial in light of Caruso's "outburst," and, counsel for the criminal defendant in the underlying kidnapping case was forced to consider alternate remedies, including the panel's dismissal.)
On appeal, the Appellate Division, First Department, affirmed the contempt sanction, finding Caruso's objections to the penalty to be without merit and, in one instance, "abject nonsense." Apparently, Caruso's counsel had argued that the fine violated "public policy" in that it would work to discourage potential jurors from speaking freely and candidly. But the appellate court vehemently disagreed, and reiterated that the outcome was attributable to "'an insulting, demeaning invective spewed at a defendant.'" Such conduct was not only viewed as an affront to the criminal justice system, but "'in absolute conflict with our cherished constitutional beliefs and the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial.'"
Look who's talking now!
For a copy of the Appellate Division's decision in Matter of Caruso v. Wetzel, please click on the following link: