Washington D.C. Superior Court Comes Under Fire for Potential Racial Discrimination in Juror Background Checks

By Michael Klazema on 12/12/2013

A team of Washington D.C. prosecutors faced the scrutiny of Superior Court judge recently over its policies regarding the screening of potential jurors. The jury selection in question was meant for a high-profile gang violence trial, and the prosecutors claim that they were attempting to determine whether or not certain potential jurors had lied to the city’s Superior Court about previous criminal record information or arrest history. The judge was suspicious about the background checks, seeing as most of them were directed toward potential jurors with African American ethnicity.

Washington D.C. law dictates that those with felony convictions on their records are not permitted to serve on court juries in the district until 10 years have passed since the completion of all sentencing mandates. In other words, in order to be eligible for jury duty, a Washington D.C. resident cannot have served prison time or completed a probation or parole period at any time in the past decade.

With that law in mind, prosecutors were trying to determine whether or not certain potential jurors in this particular gang-related case were indeed permitted to serve on a jury. Of 60 potential jurors, prosecutors originally ran background checks on 18 of them – 13 of whom were African Americans.

Lynn Leibovitz, the Washington D.C. Superior Court judge overseeing the case, had no problem with prosecutors looking into the backgrounds of potential jurors, but didn’t like that particular racially-skewed statistic. She questioned whether or not the background checks were “selective as to race,” and ordered prosecutors to correct the inequity by running background checks on the remaining 42 members of the potential juror pool.

Prosecutors insisted that the racially-skewed nature of their background checks had been entirely coincidental. Instead, Emily Miller, one of the prosecuting attorneys in the case, said that the prosecution had either recognized “lifelong D.C. residents” who had lied on their court forms about a former criminal involvement, or had some sort of “instinct or judgment” on a potential juror that they felt merited a closer look in the form of a criminal background check.

Ultimately, none of the jurors had felony convictions – and could therefore not be automatically barred from participating in the case – but some had arrests for a range of colorful alleged crimes, from prostitution to car jacking. While the EEOC insists that arrests not be taken into account for employment screening, jury selectors are not bound by the same regulations, and prosecutors chose to remove numerous jurors from the pool as a result of their arrest histories.

Leibovitz ended up clearing the prosecutors of any suspicion of discrimination, after the office published a statement explaining their background check policies and their instincts on certain would-be jurors. However, the judge did caution prosecutors to be more careful in choosing who to screen and who to leave alone.


Tag Cloud
Recent Posts

Latest News

  • March 22 Countrywide, states and local municipalities have committed to ban the box legislation, seeking to equalize opportunities in the job market for those with criminal histories.
  • March 22

    Thinking about becoming a firefighter? Here are some of the background check requirements you might face.

  • March 20

    Four Department of Commerce employees are out after their background checks resulted in security clearance denials. All four had worked high-ranking positions for months despite incomplete background checks.

  • March 15 As more states legalize the recreational use of cannabis, they contend with the emergence of new industries surrounding marijuana cultivation and production. 
  • March 14 In most cases, it is easy to determine where an issue might show up on a pre-employment background check. Citations for traffic violations or reckless driving charges will appear on a motor vehicle record check. Verdicts in a civil court case will show on a civil court background check. And criminal convictions—from petty theft to violent felonies—show up on criminal background checks.
  • March 13 How many years back do employment background checks go? This question can have multiple different answers depending on the situation.
  • March 13 A new bill in Florida would require landlords of apartment complexes to present tenants with verifications of employee background checks to give them peace of mind the people working in and around their homes are trustworthy.
  • March 08 Police officers working with the University of Texas at Arlington recently arrested a man who had avoided police capture on a warrant out of Oregon for nearly two decades. The man, whose real name is Daniel Charles Ray Hanson, spent those 17 years using a variety of fake names and identification documents to move around the country, often engaging with educational institutions under false pretenses. Police say Hanson regularly went by at least three different aliases. He sports a rap sheet that stretches back to an arson conviction in 1995. 
  • March 07

    The Future of EEOC Guidance in Texas Is Up in the Air

    The EEOC issued guidance in 2012 warning employers about the dangers of enforcing categorical policies to bar candidates with criminal histories. That guidance is not enforceable in Texas thanks to a recent court ruling.

  • March 05 Vermont is the latest state to restrict employers’ access to and use of social media accounts of employees and applicants.