The Counsellor's Corner


  So, you get the notice in the mail that tells you you are to begin jury service in a month.  Approximately 60% of society reacts with displeasure, the other 40% is prepared to go in relatively happily to do their civic duty.

Then there are those who report for jury service only to reconsider.  Such is the situation of Tanja Arlington who, in late August, appeared for jury service in West Covina and watched her life become a shambles.  Ms. Arlington was sent to the court of Judge Thomas C. Falls to be a prospective juror on a drug case.  Ms. Arlington did not return to court the next day in a timely fashion.  When she did appear, Ms. Arlington told Judge Falls she had gone to see her doctor to get a letter which would explain why she could not sit on a jury.  There are, however, certain court-approved forms that need to be submitted by the doctor in this type of matter, and it appears as if Ms. Arlington did not have them filled out.  Judge Falls then found Ms. Arlington in contempt of court and sentenced her to five days in jail and a $500 fine.  He then indicated that the sentence would be "stayed", a legal term meaning that it would not be carried out as long as she served ten days as a juror as is required.

Ms. Arlington then ran out of the courthouse as she was apparently afraid she was about to be taken into custody.  The judge then ordered a warrant for her arrest, and at her second contempt hearing he sentenced her to three days in jail and fined her $250.  She was in jail for three hours until her attorney appeared.  At that time, she was released and it was then learned that her medical problems relate to panic attacks due to fear of confinement and/or pressure.  Ms. Arlington indicates that she takes anti-anxiety medication and has been under a doctor's care. She is 20 years old and presently attends nursing classes at Mt. San Antonio College, and while she thought she could serve on a jury; when she was in court she realized she could not handle the stress.  Ms. Arlington claims that Judge Falls doesn't believe her because she is young and does not look like one who suffers from a disability.

Approximately 5% of the population of this country suffers from fear of confinement or pressure.  This is the percentage that acknowledges their problem and seeks medical attention.  It is impossible to estimate how many others attempt to deal with panic disorders without having the problem treated.  Ms. Arlington's attorney is upset, indicating his client had a panic attack, can't handle confinement, and was then given the ultimate confinement, the iron bars closing behind her as she was taken to jail.

This issue brushes up against both aspects of my work life.  The lawyer part of me understands the frustration judges feel when they don't think people are being truthful as many people attempt to get out from under having to serve on a jury.  On the other hand, the therapist part of me feels badly for Ms. Arlington.

In 1997, four million jury affidavits were mailed, and only 370,000 people showed up for jury service.  This statistic frustrates judges, however there are numerous panic disorders that people suffer, and it is important that the judiciary understand just how real they are.  You also can't determine whether or not a person is being truthful in this regard merely by looking at the person.  People suffering from panic disorders come from all walks of life and in all shapes and sizes.  I do not know whether Ms. Arlington was making up an excuse to attempt to get out of jury service or whether she really does suffer from panic attacks.  If it is the latter, she needs to obtain appropriate medical paperwork so that she can be excused from further service.  There are people who can't handle the pressure of being a juror.  There are people who cannot handle being confined.  There are medications for people with panic disorders, and there are both psychotherapeutic and cognitive behavioral approaches in therapy to these illnesses as well.  It is important that panic not be dismissed without being fully examined and/or considered for if one suffers from it, the fear it brings to the sufferer can be absolutely terrifying. 

It is my hope that Judge Falls and Ms. Arlington work this issue out so that if Ms. Arlington truly does have difficulties in the panic disorder area, she is treated appropriately and not sent back to jail.  On the other hand, if she is looking for an excuse, a way to not have to serve on a jury, then her punishment would be appropriate.


Dr. Charles J. Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Booth & Unger, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth.  Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues.