Many of you may know William Penn as the man on the Quaker Oats packaging. Some of you may also know him as the founder of the State of Pennsylvania. What you may not know is that in 1670, William Penn was put on trial in London for soapboxing his Quaker principles. Why do we care about a case that happened 300 years ago in England? Well what if I told you that because of that case, a jury can now say, “forget the law” and make their own decisions on your innocence. Yes, even if two officers in Scottsdale, Arizona caught you with a joint, a jury of your peers could still find you ‘not guilty’ of drug possession.
How is that possible you ask? The answer is jury nullification. Jury nullification allows the jury to acquit the defendant even when the government has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
It is not a surprise that prosecutors do not want you to know that you have this right. Some Arizona courts have even gone as far as to downplay the power of this right by saying, “while jury nullification is a fact of our jurisprudential process, anarchy would result from instructing the jury that it may ignore the requirements of the law.” The reality is that our legal system has jury nullification written in plain language for all to see, but the common juror does not even know about it, and the government isn’t losing sleep over that.
In a recent article in The New York Times, George Washington University law professor Paul Butler advocates the importance of jury nullification. “If you are ever on a jury in a marijuana case, I recommend that you vote ‘not guilty’—even if you think the defendant actually smoked pot, or sold it to another consenting adult. As a juror, you have this power under the Bill of Rights; if you exercise it, you become part of a proud tradition of American jurors who helped make our laws fairer.”
In Arizona, first time possession of marijuana cases are offered TASC/Diversion. This gives the possessor the opportunity to avoid a felony conviction if they participate in drug treatment. Obviously there is a debate over whether casual marijuana use warrants any therapeutic intervention. For those ineligible for TASC or who do not want to participate in drug testing, a jury trial is your option. The jury has a right to simply nullify the conviction.
There have also been many cases that have used the nullification power to set otherwise guilty defendant’s free. These verdicts are more commonly known as “conscience verdicts.” Hanson v. United States, 156 U.S. 51, 102 (1895). The argument that has been made in support of jury nullification being explained to the jury before they deliberate follows this logic; a jury of your peers are meant to take the law and apply it to the facts, but the jury alone makes the decision about what facts and what law matter in your case, therefore, the jury, and only the jury, should have the right to make the determination, regardless of the facts and the law, about your innocence. Makes sense right? Well the founders of our country thought so too, that’s why jury nullification is written into our law.
So the next time you are in the breakfast isle at your local market, make sure you take a moment to tip your hat to William Penn, not only for delicious cheese steaks, but also for highlighting the power of a jury to send the message to the state that some laws do not warrant convictions.
If you are interested in viewing the full New York Times article “Jurors Can Say No” please follow the link here:
Marie J. Cacciatore is a second year law student at Phoenix School of Law and clerk for Gregg R. Woodnick PLLC.