Lawrence Toppin was a juror in a criminal trial in Bergen County. Jury selection took 6 days. As part of voir dire questioning, the Court asked the jurors whether they could abide by his direction to limit their consideration only to those facts which “are from the testimony and exhibits introduced at the trial. You cannot…look up anything about the case on any computer or electronic device. Nor can you read about the case if it appears in any form of the media…”

After the jury was sworn, the trial judge directed the jurors to limit their deliberations to “the evidence in the case without any outside influence or opinions of relatives or friends. Additionally, I must instruct you not to read any newspaper articles, or search for, or research information relating to the case, including any participants in the trial, through any means, including electronic means. Do not do any research on the internet …. Also do not research any information about this case, the law, or … the people involved … Additionally, do not read any news stories or articles, in print, [or] on the Internet…”

On each day of the trial, the jurors were instructed not to discuss the case amongst themselves or with anyone else and not to read about the case in the newspaper or online.

At the conclusion of the trial, the jury began deliberating. On the 5th day of deliberations, the foreperson sent a note informing the Court that one of the jurors brought in materials researched on the internet from Wikipedia “regarding legal terminology.” The juror was Lawrence Toppin. Despite the Court’s repeated directions, Toppin printed materials from the internet, including a definition of “preponderance” and “preponderance of the evidence.” Also included were Wikipedia articles regarding “legal burden of proof,” “reasonable doubt,” “beyond the shadow of a doubt,” “jurisprudence,” and “critical thinking.”

The Court declared a mistrial. The Court then entered an Order directing Toppin to show cause why he should not be held in contempt of court for violating multiple Court Orders to refrain from conducting internet research of issues involved in the criminal trial.

The Court held a hearing on the Order to Show Cause, and a decision was issued by Judge Doyne. The judge found that, because independent research conducted by jurors is a problem that has escalated with the advent of the internet, “[t]he need for intensified efforts to prevent jurors from conducting research” is evident. As a result of juror misconduct, Judge Doyne held that “substantial and unnecessary expense which must be borne by the litigants, their attorneys, the court system, and the public at large.”

Notwithstanding the serious consequences of juror misconduct, Judge Doyne could not find a single New Jersey case where a “juror who has violated a jury instruction to refrain from independent research, generally by way of the Internet,” had been sanctioned. Judge Doyne wrote that punishment for juror misconduct might be rare because of the unfairness of penalizing jurors for “ordinary, otherwise legal conduct that occurs in the course of compulsory state service.” Also, he thought punishment could deter jury service.

Although he found cases in other states in which jurors were sanctioned for misconduct, Judge Doyne declined to hold Toppin in contempt. Although there was no doubt Toppin brought the offending material into the jury room and his actions were contemptuous, the Court found reasonable doubt that the contempt was willful, or taken in deliberate disregard of the Court’s Orders. The Court found that Toppin believed he was not disobeying the Court’s Orders because the subject of his research was not “about the case.” Toppin characterized his research on legal terminology and psychological concepts as something outside of the case, done to assist his fellow jurors. Instead of willful disregard of the Court’s Orders, the Court concluded that “Toppin made a genuine, though perhaps reckless, mistake.” As a result, the Court found insufficient proof to hold Toppin in contempt of Court. However, the Court sought to guide future jurors as follows:

Ultimately, such actions, as those of Toppin, are simply not permitted by the laws of this State, nor nationwide. Toppin, and all currently serving and future jurors, must refrain from conducting independent research and must listen and pay obeisance to the court’s instructions, which they promise to uphold. No juror may make a unilateral determination as to the appropriateness of his or her actions as they pertain to a matter in which he or she is participating as a juror.

The case is annexed here – Matter of Lawrence Toppin