I came across an interesting First Department case yesterday while conducting research for a client:
Matter of Caruso v. Wetzel, 2006 NY Slip Op 05895.
During voir dire for a kidnapping case, a juror, the petitioner in this Article 78 proceeding, decided to speak his mind, no holds barred:
[PETITIONER]: 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.
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?
[PETITIONER]: 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?
[PETITIONER]: What does that matter?
As a result of his conduct, the following occurred:
When petitioner failed to respond, the court said, "Put down not served." When petitioner asked, "What do you mean not served?" the court directed him to "[j]ust leave the room." At that point, petitioner left his seat and approached the bench. After twice being ordered by a court officer to step out, petitioner, at the court's direction, was escorted from the courtroom. At 3:30 that afternoon, petitioner returned to the courtroom, at the court's direction, at which time he was ordered to return the next morning to show cause why he should not be held in criminal contempt pursuant to Judiciary Law § 750(A)(1)....
The next day, petitioner appeared, accompanied by counsel...Petitioner himself addressed the court and stated that in "hindsight," he should not have used "that choice of words" and that he had not intended to be disruptive.
The court found petitioner in contempt....(and)imposed a fine of $1000 and issued an order "Punishing Contempt Summarily" pursuant to Judiciary Law § 750(A)(1).
Unfortunately for the petitioner, the First Department agreed with trial court and upheld the finding of contempt and the fine. Of particular interest to me was the Court's rejection of the petitioner's argument that to uphold the contempt finding would violate public policy since it would discourage potential jurors from speaking honestly and would risk subjecting those who were inarticulate to being found in contempt. The Court stated:
This is abject nonsense. As the court stated in imposing sentence on petitioner, this proceeding(:) is most definitely not about a juror being candid, open or honest [or a]bout his ability to be fair and impartial. It is about an insulting, demeaning invective spewed at a defendant. It is an affront to our criminal justice system. . . . [T]o allow prospective jurors or anyone else to verbally debase a defendant on trial is in absolute conflict with our cherished constitutional beliefs and the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. (Emphasis added.)
I love the highlighted language, especially since it came from an appellate court. And, I completely agree with the Court's decision.
I do, however, feel ever-so-slightly bad for the petitioner. He clearly had no idea what he was getting himself into when he decided to shoot off his mouth. I suppose he'll just have to consider a lesson learned--the hard way.