I have a confession to make: I spent the first ten years of my adulthood ignoring all official correspondences from the government, including jury duty notices. I didn’t really consider myself part of The Matrix, and figured the court wouldn’t want me on a jury anyway. There were no negative consequences for me other than worrying a little sometimes, but maybe I just got lucky. So I looked into what happens if a person ignores jury duty letters.
Let me start by saying that you should not ignore a jury duty summons. First, because it’s your duty to serve on a jury and you should be glad to live in a society that is ruled by laws and do your part to keep the wheels spinning. Secondly, it’s really easy to avoid jury duty in legal ways. But if you are committed to ignoring The Man, or you’re the kind of person who doesn’t get around to answering your mail, here’s what is likely to happen to you if you don’t respond to a jury summons.
What happens if you ignore a jury duty letter?
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The text on jury notices detail some fairly serious consequences for ignoring a summons. Courts can consider ignoring a jury summons as contempt of court, and punish scofflaws accordingly, doling out penalties that can include fines and jail time. But serious punishment is rare.
In the real world, it’s extremely unlikely that the police are going to show up at your door to haul you in for not responding to a letter from the county court. It wouldn’t be practical given how many people ignore jury duty notice—according to a recent article, the jury duty no-show rate is around 45% in parts of California—and many court officers are elected and a scorched-earth response would be exceedingly unpopular.
It’s also largely unnecessary. No-shows are baked into the process in a way: The courts call up a lot of people to potentially serve, but the majority of citizens don’t ever spend time on an actual jury—a recent survey says only around 27% of U.S. adults reported having served on a jury in their lifetime.
None of this mean you’ll necessarily escape all legal consequences for ignoring a jury letter. Where you live has a lot to do with the consequences you could face. There are over 3,000 counties in the country each with a court system—some counties have no system in place for addressing jurors who fail to respond to a jury duty request. Some will let it slide the first time, and take the second missed jury duty incident more seriously. In some places, a missed jury duty summons could result in having to appear before a judge to explain yourself. A warrant could be issued. You could be fined. You could, conceivably, be imprisoned. But don’t sweat that much.
Will you be thrown in jail if you don’t show up to jury duty?
A person being jailed for missing jury duty does happen occasionally, but it’s extremely rare. It’s so rare that when it happens it can gain national attention and result in a backlash for the judge.
When not “making an example” of someone as in the above case, the goal of many county courts often seems to be giving the impression of serious consequences, without actually following through. As the The Judicial Council of California Failure to Appear Toolkit says, “the single biggest predictor of response to a jury summons is whether prospective jurors believe that failing to appear will result in negative consequences,” while acknowledging that “sending delinquent jurors to jail has not been field-tested by the Superior Court of San Joaquin County or any other California superior court and is not recommended as a method of punishment.”
In summation: Even though nothing may happen to you, it’s still a bad idea to avoid jury duty. Yes, “we’ll charge you with contempt” is probably bluster, but when the blusterer is The State, and it can lock you in a cage, it’s still a bad idea to ignore it. Ultimately, responding to a jury summons is the only way to ensure you’ll suffer no consequences, you can get out of it fairly easily, and chances are you won’t be chosen for a jury anyway. Besides, it actually is the right thing to do.