TRIAL COURT DID NOT ABUSE ITS DISCRETION IN REFUSING TO EXCUSE FOR CAUSE A JUROR WHO WORKED AS A PROSECUTOR FOR STATE ATTORNEY’S OFFICE 27 YEARS EARLIER AND WHOSE HUSBAND WAS AN INVESTIGATOR FOR THAT OFFICE WHEN JUROR STATED UNEQUIVOCALLY THAT NOTHING ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE AS A PROSECUTOR, OR HER HUSBAND’S EMPLOYMENT AS AN INVESTIGATOR, WOULD AFFECT HER ABILITY TO BE FAIR AND IMPARTIAL.
Williams v. State, 43 Fla. L. Weekly D1904 (Fla. 1st DCA August 16, 2018):
During voir dire in a case involving the defendant’s possession of illegal drugs and knowingly driving while his license was suspended, a juror stated that she had been an attorney for 37 years and that her husband worked for the state attorney’s office. In response to questions from the state, the juror stated that she currently was working as a family law attorney, and had been a prosecutor for eight years in the state attorney’s office followed by doing criminal defense work for two or three years. The juror stated that nothing about her experience as a prosecutor, or her husband’s employment in the state attorney’s office, would affect her ability to be fair and impartial.
The defendant moved to strike the juror for cause based on her past relationship with the state attorney’s office, and her husband’s current employment with it.
The state argued that the juror indicated she could be fair and impartial, and additionally argued that she had also been a criminal defense attorney for two or three years. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to strike. Because the defendant had already exhausted six peremptory strikes (he had requested an additional strike which the trial court denied), he could not strike the juror peremptorily.
Noting that the standard of review of a trial court’s ruling on a cause challenge is “abuse of discretion,” the court reminded us that the test for determining juror competency is whether the juror can lay aside any bias or prejudice and render a verdict solely on the evidence presented and the instruction on the law given. Where the record demonstrates any reasonable doubt about a juror’s ability to be impartial, it is an abuse of discretion to deny the cause challenge.
The Florida Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected the argument that persons in law enforcement positions are inherently “disabled” from serving as fair and impartial jurors.
Here, the juror made no equivocal statements about her ability to be fair and impartial. Additionally, she had worked at the state attorney’s office 27 years earlier, and her husband’s employment as an investigator standing on its own was not enough to establish that the juror was partial to the state.
The court also found that the juror’s unequivocal statements that she would not be biased by any connection to the state attorney’s office, were sufficient to remove any reasonable doubt as to her impartiality.
The defendant also argued that the court abandoned its role as a neutral arbiter by stating that he knew the juror and that she had been a respected attorney for many years. The court did not find that that statement was suggestive of bias and the court ruled there was no abuse of discretion in denying the cause challenge as to the juror.
One judge did dissent, finding that the defendant’s challenge for cause should have been granted, opining that the trial court impermissibly utilized its own personal knowledge of the prospective juror to determine lack of bias.
Noting that the prospective juror’s husband was an investigator in the office prosecuting the criminal case, and further observing that due to the special relationship between spouses, the husband’s conflicting employment related to this case created an appearance of unfairness and partiality. The appearance of unfairness was then further bolstered by the judge effectively becoming a witness in support of the juror’s ability to be impartial.
The dissenter would have reversed and granted defendant’s motion for new trial.