Serving on a jury or being available to serve on a jury is one of the responsibilities of all American citizens who are age 18 or older. It's mandated by law.
Jury summons are usually randomly-selected registered voters or driver's license holders. States have different rules for serving – or not serving when you're called – but there are several common consequences for those who choose to simply not show up.
Law Enforcement Can Arrest You
Judges have the authority to issue bench warrants for anyone who intentionally misses jury duty, although this power is used only on rare occasions. A bench warrant is an arrest order issued by a judge. It authorizes any law enforcement officer to take you into custody, arrest you, and take you to court to face the judge.
Heavy Fines and Jail Time
Technically, missing jury duty is a form of contempt of court, which is a crime. The penalty is a fine and sometimes jail time if you repeatedly ignore a jury summons or don't have a valid excuse for not attending, such as a legitimate scheduling conflict.
The amount of the fine can vary by jurisdiction. For example, it's fixed at $50 in North Carolina. The penalties are far higher if you fail to report for federal jury duty. A federal court can serve you with an Order to Show Cause, forcing you to appear before the judge to explain yourself. If the judge thinks you're in contempt, he can fine you up to $1,000, order you to perform community service or sentence you to three days in prison.
Repeat of Service
Most states have implemented systems to address the situation if you elect not to respond to your jury summons and don't appear on your scheduled date. These systems will typically send out a letter informing you of your absence and asking you to provide a valid reason for not appearing. These letters also often give you the opportunity to contact the court to reschedule your service date.
If you fail to respond to this letter, a second letter will be sent that warns you of the potential use of a bench warrant if you continue to avoid your responsibility. Lying to the court about why you haven't appeared is perjury and it's a criminal offense. The court can give you up to a five-day jail sentence and a fine of up to $1,000.
Incentives to Reduce the Inconvenience
Many courts have established incentives designed to reduce the inconvenience of reporting for jury service with the hope of encouraging citizens not to disregard their summonses. These incentives include paying jurors a daily amount that often includes mileage based on the distance between your home address and the courthouse location, making it illegal for an employer to prevent you from reporting for jury duty, and offering "one day" or "one trial" jury services, which require that you serve as a juror for just one day or one trial, which typically runs from five to seven days.
Penalties vary by state, and federal courts can impose heavy fines. A warrant might be issued for your arrest and a contempt of court conviction might appear on your record.
Sampson Quain is a screenwriter and filmmaker who began writing in 1996. He has sold feature and television scripts to a variety of studios and networks including Columbia, HBO, NBC, Paramount and Lionsgate. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in screenwriting from the University of Southern California.