In Maryland, only United States citizens may serve on the jury for a state case. Recently, a criminal defendant appealed his conviction on the grounds that a Maryland court did not ask potential jurors voir dire questions about their citizenship.
The criminal defendant had previously been convicted of a felony and in this case was indicted for multiple offenses relating to stealing a handgun. Before trial, both parties submitted proposals of voir dire questions. The criminal defendant presented fourteen questions. The State asked nineteen.
The trial court told the jurors that he would ask them questions in order to help the attorneys impanel a fair and impartial jury. He then asked about twenty questions, plus follow-up. The criminal defendant asked the court to ask questions related to citizenship. The court ultimately did not and the criminal defendant was convicted. He appealed.
On appeal, the State argued that it would be improper to reverse the conviction. Specifically, it claimed it was unlikely that any juror would have revealed a reason for disqualification based on citizenship. It also argued that asking such questions could lead to a self-incriminating response.
The criminal defendant argued that the court could not assume a noncitizen was an illegal alien. He also argued that failing to ask this question during voir dire required him to select a jury without knowing whether the prospective jurors were qualified to serve on a jury.
The appellate court agreed. It reasoned that the purpose of voir dire in Maryland was to ensure a fair and impartial jury by determining whether there was a reason to disqualify. If a party does not challenge an unqualified juror during voir dire, the challenge is waived.
The appellate court reasoned that there are two areas in which there could be a cause to remove a potential juror: (1) whether the prospective juror is qualified for service at all and (2) the prospective juror’s bias with respect to the case. Asking whether all of prospective jurors were U.S. citizens related to the first area regarding qualification for jury service.
The appellate court explained that the purpose of this rule is so that states can expect prospective jurors to understand and be loyal to United States government, local traditions, and languages. The appellate court explained that is no basis to assume that a noncitizen has assimilated American traditions or principles. A single juror who failed to understand the nature of the evidence being presented or who didn’t care about the fairness of the outcome could obstruct justice. The court noted that the assumption is that until resident aliens file for or become U.S. citizens, they are loyal to their own country.
In an earlier appellate decision, the court had decided that questions about a prospective juror’s statutory qualification were within the trial court’s discretion. The appellate court in this case said that this rule was motivated by the idea that the questionnaire focused on statutory disqualifications and there was no need to duplicate those questions. In this case, the screening method used before voir dire failed to excuse a noncitizen from service and the defendant was convicted.
The trial court was about to ask a question about citizenship when the prosecutor objected that this was improper. Therefore, the appellate court ruled that trial judges must ask voir dire questions focused on exposing constitutional and statutory disqualifications when requested by a party. A new trial was ordered.
Criminal cases have serious potential consequences. They require an aggressive advocate with experience and knowledge in criminal procedures. If you have been accused of a crime, contact the qualified and knowledgeable Maryland criminal law attorneys of the Law Offices of Anthony Fatemi and his legal team for a legal consultation. We will work diligently to obtain the best result possible for you.
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