This Is What Happens When You Ignore a Jury Summons

If you've got a driver's license, file tax returns, vote, or otherwise participate in our nation's democratic system, then you should expect at some point you'll be called for jury duty. The question is, whatcha gonna do about it?

So, you got a jury summons in the mail. Now what? While the idea of jury duty may fill you with dread, ignoring that duty can be much more problematic. Recently, Reader’s Digest talked to several legal experts about jury duty and what to do when you get called.

What you need to know about a jury duty summons

The first thing to understand about jury duty is that if you get called, it’s mandatory. “The letter notifying you of your selection for jury duty is a legally enforceable court summons,” explains attorney Joshua Goldstein.

What if you ignore a jury summons?

If you ignore any court summons, there are potential consequences, Randolph Rice, a criminal defense lawyer in Maryland, tells Reader’s Digest, but courts tend to take particular offense at those who fail to appear on a jury summons. The actual consequences depend on the state you’re in and the court that’s summoned you, but they can range from receiving another summons for a different date all the way up to criminal penalties, including fines and even incarceration of up to 180 days, according to attorney Paul Marriett. Even if you don’t end up with a fine or jail time, points out attorney Vik Monder, you might end up investing more time defending your case than you might have as a juror on someone else’s. Here are some other secrets that lawyers will never tell you.

Different states, different consequences for skipping jury duty

Larger metropolitan areas are more likely to take more aggressive action against a “no show,” points out attorney Stewart Guss. But no matter how big or small your metro area, you should assume you’ll be held accountable. For example, in a recent year in Massachusetts, a total of 48,000 people were fined $2,000 apiece. Texas has one of the most severe penalties, attorney Edith Pearce tells Reader’s Digest. “Failing to show up can lead to a fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months of jail time.” Even if you’re given an opportunity to explain why you skipped out on jury duty, it’s still in the judge’s prerogative to punish you with fines and incarceration, Rice points out. And whatever the legal penalty, skipping has the effect of flagging your name in the system. Next time you want or legitimately need to miss jury duty, you may be out of luck.

What happens if you can’t make it to jury duty?

Let’s say you’re planning to be out of town on the date for which you’ve been summoned. “You have options,” Rice assures Reader’s Digest. In most jurisdictions, you can request a “postponement” online. If your jurisdiction doesn’t offer the online option, you may be required to mail a letter stating your reason for requesting a postponement. In some cases, you can request by phone.

Now, let’s say you have every intention of showing up for jury duty, but at the last minute, your car breaks down, or you’re sick. In that case, says Rice, you should contact the court immediately to let them know your situation. And note: you probably won’t be able to use this excuse more than once. Plus, don’t you want to see if the court case you’re selected for has one of these ridiculous names?

Some people are automatically excused from jury duty

Some categories of people are automatically excused from jury duty, including those on active military duty, firefighters, and students who are residents out of state. But even they have to follow a specified procedure for getting excused. “The best bet is to carefully read the jury summons when it arrives,” says Guss. “Both the reasons and the procedure should be clearly spelled out.”

A surprising way you could get out of jury duty

“Check with the court the day before you are to serve to make sure your presence is still required,” Rice advises. “There’s always a chance they won’t need you.”

Why you might embrace getting called for jury duty

“Jury duty is a staple of our justice system,” Guss points out to Readers Digest. “As an attorney, I would encourage everyone to look at jury duty as an honor. If you’d been charged with a crime or had an important legal dispute, wouldn’t you want your peers to show up and make a fair and objective determination?” You may even find jury duty to be an interesting experience, adds Goldstein. “You’ll get a chance to see the operation of the legal system first hand.” And you might even find it entertaining, especially if you’re selected for a jury on at a trial like one of these 22 funniest court cases of all time.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York–based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest and in a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction, and her first full-length manuscript, "The Trust Game," was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.