Nearly all participants in the California criminal justice system have discretion regarding how and when to enforce laws is a familiar concept. Police do it on a regular basis, such as when issuing a warning rather than a citation to a motorist. Prosecutors decide which cases to pursue and whether to engage in negotiations with the offer of a reduced charge or sentence in exchange for a defendant’s guilty plea. A trial judge’s exercise of discretion in making evidentiary and other rulings is generally subject to reversal by a higher court only on specified and limited grounds.
We say “nearly” all, however, because this discretion does not extend to jurors. At the beginning of a trial, jurors take an oath promising to consider all evidence properly presented and reach decisions regarding the facts of the case. A jury is not, however, empowered to interpret the law.
Before the jury retires to deliberate, the judge will give the members detailed instructions as to the proper interpretation and application of the law. By the terms of their oath, jurors must apply the law in accordance with those instructions. One or more jurors may object to the morality of the subject law and refuse to apply it as instructed. If an acquittal results, “jury nullification” has occurred.
Although historians trace the history of jury nullification in the United States to the Colonial Era, it became fairly commonplace in the years leading up to the Civil War. Across the northern states, juries reportedly began to acquit defendants charged with violating the federal Fugitive Slave Act, despite clear evidence of guilt. Many recent cases have involved prosecutions under what some believe are overly harsh drug laws.
Proponents of the right of a jury to nullify what it considers an unjust result contend that it is a necessary safeguard against unjust laws and unfair enforcement. Critics assert that it undermines the predictive value of legal precedent and effectively deprives a criminal defendant of his or her constitutional right to a trial by jury.
Jurors do not generally admit that they voted to acquit a defendant they otherwise believed was guilty based on their objections to the applicable law. As such, except in the most egregious cases, it is difficult to prove that nullification has occurred, and cases directly confronting the issue are not common. Scholarly debates continue regarding the role of nullification in the criminal justice system.
However, since 2001 it has been well-settled that jury nullification is not sanctioned by California law. That year, the state’s Supreme Court announced its decision in People v. Williams. At Williams’ trial, the judge discharged a juror who was admittedly unwilling to enforce the statute criminalizing Williams’ sexual conduct with his underage girlfriend. Williams asserted on appeal that the juror’s refusal to follow the law should have been allowed as a proper exercise of jury nullification.
The state Supreme Court disagreed, citing a long line of federal and state cases rejecting the suggestion that nullification is an acceptable practice and noting that no reported decision up to that time had questioned a trial judge’s removal of a juror who is admittedly unable or unwilling to apply the law as instructed. To find otherwise, the Court concluded, would leave defendants subject to the whims of a particular jury, rather than the equal application of established rules of law.