Refuse jury box, get jail cell Baltimore County gets tough with those who dodge civic duty

June 28, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

When Jennifer D. Revels got a notice for jury duty in Baltimore County Circuit Court in March, she didn't think anyone would care if she didn't show up. So she stayed home.

She got another notice -- and then a summons asking for an explanation -- but ignored them, too. "I just kind of brushed it off as being no big thing," said Revels, 20, who lives in Woodlawn.

But yesterday, she wound up behind bars, handcuffed and brought before the county's chief judge.

It was all part of a roundup that county Circuit Court officials ordered this week to target Revels and 14 other residents who have consistently dodged jury duty.

Baltimore has a similar policy of jailing people for half a day if they do not show up for jury duty three or more times. In April, several of the 10,000 scofflaws sat in jail for several hours.

In the county, the process has turned up a handful of people annually. Often, the no-shows have explanations: They moved, were sick, couldn't get child care or didn't have transportation.

But about 1 percent are dodging, said court administrator Peter J. Lally.

This week's sweep began Tuesday with the court issuing orders authorizing the county sheriff to get the nine men and six women.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, deputies made phone calls, urging people on the list to come in voluntarily. Today, they may pick up anyone who hasn't.

Wednesday, five people came to the courthouse on their own and went before Circuit Judge Barbara Kerr Howe. Three had reasons she found acceptable and were sent to an assembly room where they waited to be picked for a jury.

Another woman got a new date for jury duty, and one man was fined $50, said Jury Commissioner Nancy C. Tilton.

It could have been worse. According to state law, no-shows face a possible $100 fine and three-day jail sentence.

Revels paid a different price -- being scared and humiliated.

She got a call from a sheriff's deputy Wednesday afternoon, telling her that if she didn't come to court yesterday, he'd be by to get her. "The only thing I thought was, 'I'll be there,' " she said.

Traveling with her mother and son, she arrived at the sheriff's department in Towson about 9 a.m. After a deputy had her fill out an "Arrestee Form," he gave her a numbered placard and told her to hold it while he took a mug shot.

That's when she started getting scared: "I said, 'For what? Now I'm a criminal?' "

For 45 minutes she sat in a lock-up in the courthouse basement.

"It looked gloomy. It was depressing. It just gave me this cold kind of feeling," she said.

When the judge was ready for her, another deputy handcuffed her and escorted her to the third floor, where most courtrooms are. "I was embarrassed more than anything, because people were looking at me.

She was locked up again for about five minutes, in a cell outside the judge's chambers. "That cell was small -- smaller than a closet," with just a bench, toilet and bars on the door, she said.

When Chief Circuit Judge Edward A. DeWaters Jr. was ready for her, she explained that she didn't know jury duty was mandatory, and the judge was understanding.

"I wasn't going to do anything to them, just make sure they were going to comply" next time, he said. He gave her a date to serve next week.

Later, asked whether she would show up, her answer came quickly: "Oh, of course."

DeWaters said the roundup ensures a high rate of compliance with jury summonses. "You're not going to continue to maintain that degree of cooperation if people ignore it and they tell everyone they know [that they got away with it] . . . and they say, 'Well, heck, I may as well not go in.' "

Some people do not show up, Tilton said, because they fear that they must serve long periods of time -- a fear created in part by the O. J. Simpson trial -- or that the courts will not accommodate their schedules or other needs.

But she said the people selected for long trials usually have indicated that they can serve, and her staff is flexible when people have emergencies or other obstacles.

"We're not ogres," she said. "A lot of this can be avoided if people would just give us a call; we could work out arrangements."

Pub Date: 6/28/96

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