TAMPA — If you're one of the 387 people who skipped jury duty Monday morning in Hillsborough County, be warned:
A judge is coming after you.
Struggling to seat a panel for trial, Circuit Judge Gregory Holder decided he would do something to show Monday's no-shows there are consequences for dodging duty.
He issued an "order to show cause," which will summon absentees to a hearing Nov. 4 for questioning. Those without legitimate excuses could be fined $100 or put in jail for six months for contempt of court. If Monday's absentees don't show up that day, Holder said he will issue arrest warrants.
The trigger for Holder's frustration: It took more than three hours to gather a pool of 22 prospective jurors for a trial in his courtroom.
"This conduct is absolutely unacceptable," Holder said.
In Hillsborough County each week, the percentage of people who don't respond to a juror summons hovers between 20 and 25 percent. In Pinellas, that number is about 13 percent.
On Monday in Hillsborough, the early count was about 25 percent — 387 no-shows according to Holder, out of 1,523. That doesn't include people with excuses who had been exempted. The remaining pool gets divided among the trials of the week, criminal and civil.
Missing jurors put a real wedge in the system, said Assistant State Attorney Felix Vega. Defendants have a right to a speedy trial. Lawyers and witnesses have schedules.
So why skip?
Some don't want to miss a paycheck, Vega said, and even though the law protects people from losing jobs while serving jury duty, many don't want to take that chance.
The heavily publicized Casey Anthony case didn't help things, Vega said. Some people are now under the impression that serving on a jury means being sequestered for weeks at a time.
In Hillsborough, most trials last just a few days.
But not all of the people on Holder's list meant to play hooky Monday.
"Oh my gosh, I thought it was next week," said Donna Weir, a 45-year-old stay-at-home mom.
"Oh, shoot!" said 29-year-old Denise Israel, a certified nursing assistant. She said she moved to a different address about a month ago and didn't get a summons. Now, she's worried about what penalty she'll get. "I'm kind of blown."
Aaliyah Arrocha-Samuel, a 33-year-old educator, said she didn't get a summons either. Like others on the list, she no longer lives in Hillsborough County. She moved to Arizona two years ago but got her driver's license changed in July when she realized her stay would be permanent.
She said she wouldn't blow off jury duty on purpose.
"I do believe in my civic responsibility," she said. "That's why I'm a registered voter here."
Maybe Holder will buy their excuses.
Maybe others won't be so lucky.
But the 22 potential jurors who came to Holder's courtroom on Monday don't have to worry. They chuckled with relief after a bailiff filled them in.
"See," the bailiff told them, "aren't you glad you showed up?"
Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.