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Ninth Circuit Acknowledges Prisoner’s Right to Extended Voir Dire in Suit Alleging Abuse by Idaho Jail Officials

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a lower court abused its discretion in refusing a prisoner's voir dire inquiry into potential juror bias for law enforcement.

Floyd Darbin was a prisoner at Idaho's Canyon County Jail, when Sheriff George Nourse assaulted and battered him, then withheld his mail and visiting privileges for several months.

Darbin brought federal suit against Nourse and the case went to trial. Darbin moved for extended voir dire, informing the court that most of his prospective witnesses were prisoners while most of Nourse's prospective witnesses were police officers. Darbin wished to inquire as to juror beliefs that: (1) police officers are more credible witnesses than other persons; and (2) jail prisoners should not be allowed to sue jail officials. The trial court denied the extended inquiry, and "voir dire was rather brief."

Following a three day trial, the jury ruled in favor of Nourse. Darbin appealed, arguing "that the voir dire examination was insufficient to allow him to exercise intelligently his jury challenges for cause and his peremptory challenges." The Ninth Circuit agreed.

"The voir dire examination plays a critical role in securing the right to an impartial jury in civil, as well as criminal trials,” the court noted. "The principal purpose of voir dire is to probe each prospective juror's state of mind to enable the trial judge to determine actual bias and to allow counsel to assess suspected bias or prejudice." For this reason, the court observed, "a voir dire examination must be conducted in a manner that allows the parties to effectively and intelligently exercise their right to peremptory challenges and challenges for cause."

The court also instructed that "if an inquiry requested by counsel is directed toward an important aspect of the litigation about which members of the public may be expected to have strong feelings or prejudices, the court should adequately inquire into the subject on voir dire. The court must not be niggardly or grudging in accepting counsels' requests that such inquiries be made."

In finding that the district court erred in refusing to allow Darbin's requested inquiry, the Ninth Circuit noted that it had previously "held that when important testimony is anticipated from government officials, and specifically law enforcement officers, the inquiry requested by Darbin must be made if requested." As such, "the refusal to inquire on voir dire into the favorable bias jurors might accord the testimony of law enforcement officers constitutes an abuse of discretion and a violation of the provisions of Fed.R.Civ.P. 47(a)."

The court found it unnecessary to decide whether the failure to inquire about juror attitudes toward prisoners' rights amounted to reversible error, but instructed the court that should the case be tried again, sufficient voir dire needs to be conducted to allow the informed exercise of challenges. See: Darbin v. Nourse, 664 F2d 1109 (9th Cir. 1981).

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Related legal case

Darbin v. Nourse