United States v. Lawson: Problems with Presumption in the Fourth Circuit

BY Anna H. Tison

Changing technology impacts the way people interact with the law, including both judges and jurors. And with the advent of websites such as Wikipedia, juror misconduct—particularly in the form of researching aspects of the case online—is on the rise. Despite the Fourth Circuit’s admission that it had relied on Wikipedia in judicial opinions in the past, the court held in United States v. Lawson that a juror’s use of Wikipedia to look up an element of the charged offense was presumptively prejudicial, and thus overturned the defendant’s conviction. In reaching its decision, the Fourth Circuit applied the United States Supreme Court’s holding from Remmer v. United States that “any private communication, contact, or tampering, directly or indirectly, with a juror” is presumed to be prejudicial. Despite a circuit split on whether Remmer is still applicable following the Supreme Court’s decisions in Smith v. Phillips and United States v. Olano, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the presumption did apply and that the government failed to rebut it.

This Recent Development argues that the Fourth Circuit should apply the Remmer presumption more narrowly to encourage finality in criminal convictions and to avoid reversals based on minor technicalities like the one in Lawson. Although Remmer has not been overruled, the Supreme Court’s subsequent decisions have restricted its scope, partially in recognition of the high threshold that Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) demands when the government attempts to rebut presumptions of prejudice. While juror misconduct remains a real concern, strict application of Remmer is excessivewhen allegations of prejudice revolve around technicalities like a juror’s consultation of Wikipedia for the meaning of a single word. The application of the Remmer presumption should thus be limited to cases involving egregious juror misconduct or situations where an outside influence has injected itself into the jury deliberations in order to affect the verdict. Further, even if the Fourth Circuit was correct in applying the Remmer presumption to the facts at issue in Lawson, the test the court applied makes it nearly impossible for the government to rebut the presumption, especially in light of the limitations imposed by Rule 606(b), which prevent jurors from testifying about the mental processes that went into deciding the verdict. If the Remmer presumption was more limited, the government would not be required to make a vain attempt to satisfy a nearly impossible test.

DOWNLOAD PDF | 91 N.C. L. Rev.2244 (2013)