The right to a jury trial is one of the constitutional rights recognized to those who stand accused of a crime. This right guarantees that anyone charged with a felony or a misdemeanor punishable by more than six months in prison will be tried by an impartial jury that is representative of the community.
Below you will find information about the jury to better understand the importance of this institution in the administration of justice, as well as a general understanding of what to expect if you are selected for jury duty. If you have received a summons to serve as a juror and have questions concerning this matter, click here for more information about the Jury Duty Administration Bureau.
An Impartial Jury Representative of the Community
What is a jury?
A Jury is a group of 12 people that are representative of the community, who are selected at random to be the trier of the facts of a case based on the information and evidence that is presented in court.
What does it mean for a jury to be representative of the community?
It refers to constitutional guarantee that a person will be tried by individuals who are alike. A person should be tried by their peers or equals, belonging to the same community. Therefore, serving on a jury is considered a very important civic duty.
For example, when selecting persons to serve as jurors in a trial for a crime committed in the Bayamón Judicial Region, the list will consist of individuals from the Municipality of Bayamón and the other municipalities that make up said region. If you are interested in learning more about how the judicial regions are organized, please consult the Judicial Branch Directory.
What does it mean for a jury to be impartial?
This means that the jurors must remain neutral and not have preconceived opinions about the case or any personal, financial, political, social, cultural, or any other interest or benefit that might influence the way judge others or a particular case. This includes having knowledge that could affect their impartiality when passing judgment on their peers. This is why serving on a jury does not require a person to be knowledgeable about cases, statutes, or law in general.
To ensure that a juror is impartial, there is a rigorous selection process during the criminal proceeding. This selection process is an examination of prospective jurors, known as the voir dire, which will be explained below.
Jury Duty: Duty that Allows Us to Enjoy Constitutional Rights
What is the importance of jury duty?
The constitutional right to a jury trial is one of several constitutional rights recognized in Puerto Rico that seek to ensure that cases prosecuted against an individual in court are fair.
This constitutional right embodies one of the pillars of our justice system and offers every person the opportunity to serve their community. When a person serves as a juror, they become partially responsible for imparting justice as they contribute to making some of the most important decisions in the life of any person: whether or not they are guilty of committing a crime, and with it the possibility of taking away that person’s freedom by way of incarceration.
When participating in a judicial proceeding, each member of the jury will learn and grow from the experience, reinforcing the community’s trust in the system of justice of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. In our Government System, power is distributed among the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial).
This separation of powers means that each branch of government has different responsibilities, powers, and functions. This system of government provides checks and balances to prevent abuse of power. Moreover, this system allows for public participation in the administration of justice and different processes that are usually reserved for the government (namely, government agencies and staff that participate in the different proceedings in court). Through jury duty, citizens pass judgment on the facts and evidence presented during court proceedings and determine—in accordance with their conscience and without the influence of social and political pressures—the guilt or innocence of the accused. This encourages public trust in the courts and offers legitimacy to the judicial process.
Why is it considered a civic duty?
Being part of a jury pool is considered a civic duty. Thus, the criminal justice system can rely on a large group of people with diverse profiles and characteristics to promote the constitutional guarantee that the accused will be tried by a group of their peers who are representative of the community.
On occasion, a lack of knowledge of the laws, processes, and duties will lead people who are qualified under Law No. 281 of 2003 to be unwilling to be selected for jury duty and comply with such an important civic duty.
However, fulfilling this civic duty is beneficial for the community as a whole. To illustrate its importance, if person you care for and know well were to be tried in a criminal proceeding, you would want a jury that is impartial and representative. This applies to everyone and is achieved by having a jury pool to choose from when selecting its members.
When is it determined that a trial will be held before a jury?
When a person is charged with a felony or misdemeanor that carries a penalty of a felony charge (for example, six months of imprisonment), the defendant together with their legal counsel (defense attorney) must choose whether the case will be heard by a jury or by a judge. Thus, when the judge sets the trial date, the court will ask the defendant if they want to be tried by a jury or if they wish to waive that right. If the defendant decides on a jury trial, the judge will order that various panels of 14 individuals be summoned to court at a specified date and time.
How are prospective jurors notified?
Summons are issued by the Office of the Clerk of the Court and can be delivered to the candidates in person or through other available means (mail, email, or by phone). All these notices are official and their compliance is mandatory.
Where do the names of those eligible for jury duty come from and how are they selected?
- Digital Registry of Prospective Jurors
The first step to select a jury is to identify people who are eligible to serve as jurors.
The Jury Duty Administration Bureau is responsible for gathering information on Puerto Rico residents. For this purpose, a digital registry of prospective jurors has been created, drawing from several sources, such as the State Elections Commission and the Department of Transportation and Public Works, among others.
A computer will select names at random from this registry, and these individuals will be sent a questionnaire so the Jury Duty Administration Bureau may determine if they are eligible to serve as prospective jurors. It is important to note that no particular person may be added to this digital registry at the request of that individual or of third parties.
- Jury Questionnaire
Once prospective jurors receive the questionnaire, they must fill it out, sign it, and return it to the Jury Duty Administration Bureau. This is how to determine whether the person receiving the questionnaire is eligible for jury duty. There is no way to know beforehand if the person receiving the questionnaire is a prospective juror that could be excused from jury duty. It is important that they fill in their contact information, including their mobile phone number and email, as they will receive court notifications through their electronic devices.
If a person believes that they do not meet the requirements for jury service, they must provide evidence that supports or proves their ineligibility, along with the completed questionnaire.
If you have a medical condition that prevents you from serving as a juror, your doctor or health care provider may complete the Medical Certificate on the back of the questionnaire. This certification can only be completed by a physician, not by the prospective juror.
Who is eligible for jury duty?
To serve as a juror, a person must:
- be 18 years or older
- be able to read and write in Spanish
- be a legal resident of Puerto Rico for one year and have been a resident of the judicial region where the trial is being held for at least 90 days.
- not have been convicted of a felony or any other crime involving moral turpitude.
- be physically and mentally capable of serving as a juror.
All those who meet these requirements will be classified as eligible for jury duty and their name will be added to a digital registry from where potential jurors are selected at random.
Until what age can a person serve as a juror?
There is no age limit for jury duty as long the person meets the requirements to serve as a juror.
Do you need to have prior knowledge of the law to be a juror?
No, people do not need to have any prior knowledge of the law to serve as jurors. In fact, having previous knowledge of the law or of the proceedings might affect their impartiality. During the proceeding before the court, the judge will provide the jury with the necessary legal so they may fulfill their duty as jurors.
What are some of the reasons to be excused from jury duty?
A judge can excuse a prospective juror from serving on a jury in a particular case for the following reasons:
- extraordinary reasons, such as personal health issues, the illness or death of a family member, or the immediate danger or ruin of their property or of a property under their custody
- being a public employee or official that, due to the nature of their duties, must by exempt from jury duty (e.g., police, members of the armed forces, and Judicial Branch personnel, among others, since their previous knowledge of the law and judicial proceedings could affect their impartiality)
- the nature of their job duties or professional commitments (for example, attorneys, law clerks, legal secretaries, and stenographers are exempt from jury duty)
Additionally, women who can present medical evidence that shows they are breastfeeding are also exempt. Lastly, those currently serving as jurors in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico during the term for which they were selected are also exempt.
It is important to note that inconveniences or business and/or personal matters will not necessarily result in a person being excused from jury duty. Likewise, the decision to excuse a person for health reasons is a decision for the court and not a medical decision.
What happens on the day you are summoned to appear in court?
Those who are summoned to appear in court must attend on the day of the trial, fill out some documents, and take their designated place in the courtroom when so instructed by the marshal. There you will find court staff and other individuals who participate in the proceedings: those who represent the People of Puerto Rico (known as the prosecution, represented by district attorneys from the Department of Justice) and the defense attorney that represent the accused. The judge will give general instructions and proceed with the process to select who will finally serve as jurors. This process is known as the examination of prospective jurors.
What is the examination of prospective jurors?
This is the process through which the 12 people who will make up the jury are selected, along with alternate jurors. This examination is one of the most important stages because the questions asked by the judge, the prosecution, and the defense attorney guarantee that the people selected for jury duty are impartial and capable of participating in the process without any biases. This process is also known as voir dire.
What types of questions can be asked during the examination of prospective jurors or voir dire?
The questions, which are answered under oath, can be about a person’s experiences, background, and personal beliefs. Even though the questions may seem personal, there is no reason to be embarrassed because there are no wrong answers. The important thing is to answer questions as honestly as possible.
In general, the process begins with questions from the judge about the crime and the charges to ascertain if the people summoned have knowledge of the case. If the case has garnered a lot of attention from the media, this does not mean that people will be excused from serving as jurors. Instead, the voir dire process will just be more extensive. This is to make sure that the people selected are actually impartial.
After the judge, the defense attorney and the prosecution will ask questions to see how they might decide or approach the case and if there is any cause that would impact their judgment. If there is cause, they may request the court to excuse a person from serving as a juror. For example, if the case is about a robbery, they may ask questions to know if the prospective jurors or someone close to them has been the victim of a robbery, which could emotionally affect their impartiality and prevent them from deciding based on the facts as neutrally as possible.
What are challenges?
In the context of a jury, challenges are requests the parties can make to excuse a person from serving as a juror in a particular case. Challenges can be for cause (requiring an explanation) or peremptory (those which are granted by law without an explanation). Challenges are used so that both sides in a case, the defense and the prosecution, may choose the best possible group to make sure the trial is fair and impartial.
For example, if the case before the court involves driving under the influence of alcohol and a prospective juror had an accident cause by a drunk driver, the defense attorney may ask that they be excused since they may be emotionally compromised due to their personal experience and may not be impartial when passing judgment on the defendant. In other words, the person will be excused because there is cause to believe that they will not be able to apply the law without being influenced by their personal emotions.
Role of the Jury
What is the role of the jury during a trial?
After the voir dire is completed, those selected will take an oath to serve as members of the jury throughout the proceedings. It is essential that the people selected as jurors pay attention throughout the entire process, carefully listening and examining the evidence admitted by the court in light of the instructions provided by the judge at the time.
The essential role of the jury is to determine the facts; that is to say, to receive and evaluate the evidence presented and admitted during the trial, and then reach a conclusion. This is known as deliberating. To deliberate, the jury retires to a room where only they are allowed. There, they will evaluate the evidence that was presented in court. Finally, through the application of the law as instructed by the judge, they must render a verdict.
What happens after the verdict?
Once the verdict is rendered, the judge will excuse the jury, thank them for fulfilling their civic duty, and continue the appropriate legal process.
How long does a trial last?
The duration of a trial will vary from case to case. It will depend on its complexity, the number of witnesses, and the evidence that is presented, among other factors. During the trial, the proceedings may be suspended at times and, in most cases, delays are inevitable. However, Judicial Branch personnel endeavors to make the administration of justice efficient.
What is the schedule for jury duty? Is there an exit time?
The time the trial will start may vary ,but it will be between 8:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. If there is a situation that merits extending the hearing a given day during the trial, it may be go beyond the established schedule.
How many times can I be asked to serve as a juror?
There is no limit on the number of times you can serve as a juror. However, once a juror is excused by the court, that person will not be called to jury duty for a period of five years.