Bill to Foster Fair Juries Authored by Assemblymember Ash Kalra Signed Into Law by Governor

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

SACRAMENTO – Governor Brown signed into law Assembly Bill (AB) 1541 by Assemblymember Kalra to establish statutory guidance that courts must consider during voir dire for criminal trials in order to ensure a fair and impartial jury.

“I am grateful of the Governor’s decision to sign AB 1541 because the value of being able to question and gain information from prospective jurors during voir dire is paramount in the judicial process,” said Assemblymember Kalra. “AB 1541 supports Californians’ constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury by making sure courts are not overstepping voir dire in favor of expediency.”

AB 1541, sponsored by the California Public Defenders Association, is supported by the California District Attorneys Association. Prior to being elected to the State Assembly, Assemblymember Kalra served as a deputy Public Defender for Santa Clara County for 11 years with experience in impaneling juries in dozens of criminal trials.

“For decades, crime victims, individuals accused of crimes, prosecutors and defense lawyers have had to suffer reversals, mistrials, and wrongful convictions because rigid time-limits on juror interviews made it extremely difficult to uncover biases,” said Michael Ogul, Santa Clara County Deputy Public Defender and California Public Defenders Association Board Member. “Today, Governor Brown’s signature on AB 1541 finally provides attorneys for both sides the tools to assist them with evaluating whether individuals have prejudices that would make it unfair for them to serve on juries.”

The voir dire phase of a trial is the process the court uses to determine whether prospective jurors are able to render a judgment that is fair and impartial by allowing counsel time to ask probing questions to determine any biases or disqualifications from serving. Thus, a reasonable amount of questioning, or “voir dire,” must be permitted in order to learn whether each individual will be a fair and impartial juror in the case.

Complementary to the 2016-2017 Public Safety Budget Trailer Bill (Senate Bill 843, Chapter 33, Statutes of 2016), AB 1541 seeks to assist in more effective use of voir dire by instructing courts to follow guidelines such as, permitting counsel to “liberal and probing examination” of prospective jurors and prohibiting unreasonable or arbitrary time limits as a general court policy by the trial judge. The bill is in response to the state’s reduction of the number of peremptory challenges permissible in criminal misdemeanor trials from ten to six. Preemptory challenges are often used by attorneys on both sides to ensure fairness by allowing them to excuse who they suspect, but cannot prove, are harboring bias during the voir dire process.