One of the more controversial posts we've had recently concerned the discussion about whether or not jurors should be allowed
to use the internet to do research related to a case they are hearing. It seems like most folks here were very much against it, though I think it's something worth exploring in more detail. But, let's take this question a few steps across the courtroom. What about judges? In a recent appeals court ruling, it was found that it's okay for a judge to use Google to "confirm his intuition."
The case involved a bank robber, and a question over whether or not he violated the terms of his release by (you guessed it) robbing another bank. There was a question over what the robber wore that resulted in the Googling:
Chin reviewed several pieces of evidence, including a bank surveillance video showing a robber who wore a yellow rain hat. A yellow rain hat was found in the garage of [Anthony] Bari's landlord.
Noting similarities between the hats, Chin at a hearing said he resorted to Google Inc's search engine for help. "We did a Google search," and "one can Google yellow rain hats and find lots of different yellow rain hats," he said.
While that single point seems to favor the suspect, in providing some bit of reasonable doubt that the yellow rain hat alone proves who it was, the judge, Denny Chin, felt that there was enough overall evidence, and sentenced the guy to three years in jail. However, because of that Google search, Bari appealed, saying this violated federal rules of evidence. However, the appeals court had no problem with it:
In its decision, the appeals court said most federal evidence rules "do not apply with their full force" in proceedings to revoke supervised releases.
Using this "relaxed" standard, it endorsed Chin's effort to confirm his "common sense supposition" that more than one yellow rain hat is available for sale.
But it went further, saying improved broadband speeds and Internet search engines cut the cost of confirming intuitions.
The court said that 20 years ago. "a trial judge may have needed to travel to a local department store to survey the rain hats on offer.
"Today, however, a judge need only take a few moments to confirm his intuition by conducting a basic Internet search," it added. "As the cost of confirming one's intuition decreases, we would expect to see more judges doing just that."
I'm curious to see if the same people, who were horrified at my suggestion that Google searches for juries might not be such a horrible thing, feel the same way in the case of a judge. Because one of the key points raised in the discussion here was that "rules of evidence" were concrete and could never be messed with -- and even suggesting that the concept might be due for an update was pure blasphemy. Yet, here it seems that an appeals court recognizes that modern technology may change how rules of evidence can work.