Juror Googled ICE officer’s mysterious uniform patch. The result? $11k for contempt

The badge of ICE Field Office Director, Enforcement and Removal Operations, David Marin and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Fugitive Operations team search for a Mexican national at a home in Hawthorne, California, U.S., March 1, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

July 1 - The night before a federal jury in Camden, New Jersey, began deliberations in the U.S. government’s case accusing Kevin Ruiz-Quezada of assaulting an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer, a juror named Stephen Meile had questions.

During trial, jurors had been shown a photograph depicting a patch on an ICE officer’s uniform. There was a suggestion that the patch was a trade union logo. Meile, a retired pipefitter, didn’t think it was.

So he looked it up on Google and told fellow jurors what he found out. (More on that later.)

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And now he’s facing a fine of $11,227 after being held in criminal contempt for defying court orders and causing a mistrial in Ruiz-Quezada’s case.

U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler of Camden imposed the fine on Tuesday after a show-cause hearing, two weeks after the judge declared a mistrial in the Ruiz-Quezada case because of Meile’s Google search. The $11,227 fine represents the cost of empaneling the jury in the mistrial.

It’s one of the most extreme punishments ever meted out to a U.S. juror who breached court instructions prohibiting internet research, according to John Browning of Spencer Fane, who has written extensively about jurors, social media and the internet. Judges in the U.S., Browning said by email, have typically punished jurors with smaller fines or community service, even when their Google searches or social media posts have resulted in mistrials. (A juror in the U.K., by contrast, was sentenced in 2011 to eight months in jail for corresponding with a defendant on Facebook during jury deliberations in the defendant’s drug trial.)

The whopping New Jersey penalty, Browning said, “represents an attempt to have the offending juror’s fine for contempt at least approximate the cost to the justice system.”

Meile’s counsel in the contempt proceeding, Mark Catanzaro, declined comment.

In the underlying criminal case Meile was empaneled to decide, the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s office alleged that Ruiz-Quezada resisted arrest when ICE officers came to his home in December 2017 to execute an administrative arrest warrant and initiate immigration proceedings. Ruiz-Quezada, a lawful permanent resident, contended that he was not resisting arrest but merely reaching for a coat because it was early in the morning and he was dressed in pajamas. One ICE officer experienced a hand injury in the scuffle inside Ruiz-Quezada’s house. He was indicted for assaulting a federal officer.

The criminal trial before Kugler was originally scheduled for July 2020 but was delayed because of COVID. Jury selection finally took place on June 10. Prosecutors and defense counsel from Loughry & Lindsay presented two days of testimony and delivered closing statements on the morning of June 15.

The jury’s deliberations came to an abrupt end that afternoon, when Juror 7 informed a court official that another juror had disobeyed the judge’s instructions and conducted online research. The first juror didn’t know Meile’s name. But in sworn testimony, according to a transcript of the late-afternoon hearing, Juror 7 told Kugler that Meile had looked up the logo on the ICE officer’s uniform the night before deliberations began.

When the jury took the case, Juror 7 said, Meile asserted that his research showed the ICE officer's patch was a white supremacist logo.

“He said that to the whole jury?” Kugler asked. “What was the reaction of the other jurors?”

Juror 7 said jurors weren't influenced by Meile's white supremacist assertion because no one knew if it was true. But they were all distressed about Meile’s violation of court orders, the juror told Kugler.

“Everybody was very upset that he just didn't listen and did the research," Juror 7 said. (I asked the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s office and defense counsel Justin Loughry for additional information about the ICE officer’s patch and its role at the trial. A spokesperson for prosecutors declined to comment and Loughry didn’t respond.)

After Juror 7’s testimony, prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed that Kugler should declare a mistrial because Meile's disclosure of his search results had tainted the jury.

The judge asked whether he should also take action against the juror. Prosecutors said yes: “We would ask that you bring him in, put him under oath and question him. He's clearly in contempt.”

The judge asked only a few questions of Meile that afternoon, confirming that the juror understood his admonition not to conduct research, nevertheless Googled the logo and then told other jurors about his findings. Kugler told Meile he would have to come back to court for a hearing on his actions. “You may have committed a serious offense against the court,” the judge said, warning Meile that he could face serious ramifications for defying court orders.

“This is awful,” Kugler told the lawyers in the case, according to the transcript. “It's an awful situation.”

There’s no shortage of anecdotes about jurors in big cases tainting deliberations with improper online searches. A 2010 Reuters investigation found that dozens of cases had been derailed by jurors’ internet ventures in just two years. Since then, courts have learned to give jurors sterner warnings about social media and internet searches. The federal court system, for instance, updated its guidance last year to urge judges to warn jurors every day to stay off the internet.

Most jurors heed the warnings, as the Meile debacle shows. His fellow jurors were so disturbed about his independent research that they informed the court. It’s true, as Kugler noted in the June 15 hearing, that misconduct like Meile’s has become relatively rare. But in a quick search, I found news reports on at least five criminal trials since 2015 that were disrupted when jurors turned to the internet for research.

"This is a huge, huge problem," Kugler said at the June 15 hearing. Perhaps his imposition of a $11,227 penalty will help solve it.

(This article has been corrected. A previous version used the wrong first name for Judge Kugler.)

Read more:

As jurors go online, U.S. trials go off track

U.S. courts update social media guidance for jurors for the first time since 2012

4th Circuit skips chance to provide social media guidance in W. Va. justice's case

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Alison Frankel has covered high-stakes commercial litigation as a columnist for Reuters since 2011. A Dartmouth college graduate, she has worked as a journalist in New York covering the legal industry and the law for more than three decades. Before joining Reuters, she was a writer and editor at The American Lawyer. Frankel is the author of Double Eagle: The Epic Story of the World’s Most Valuable Coin.