Fourth Circuit Slams Juror’s Use of Wikipedia—US v. Lawson

[Post by Venkat Balasubramani]

US v. Lawson, 10-4831 (4th Cir.; Apr. 20, 2012)

Lawson and his co-defendants were convicted of violating the “Animal Welfare Act” through their participation in “gamefowl derbies” (cockfighting). One of the elements of the crime was “sponsorship” of the events in question. Shortly after the verdict was rendered, one of the jurors came forward and reported potential misconduct on the part of another juror (Juror 177). Apparently, Juror 177 had consulted “certain internet sources” the morning before the jury reached its verdict. The district court held a hearing and found that Juror 177 consulted Wikipedia for the definition of the term “sponsor.” Juror 177 printed out the definition of “sponsor” and brought it with him to the jury room. He was rebuffed by the jury foreperson, but it was clear he considered the definition, and some discussion of the Wikipedia entry took place between him and other jurors. The jury reached a verdict shortly after Juror 177’s efforts.

The district court found that the juror’s consultation of Wikipedia did not prejudice the defendant. The Fourth Circuit disagrees, and in the process takes more than a few potshots at Wikipedia. The court says there is a presumption of prejudice when a juror consults outside sources, and it applies a five factor test to determine whether the government effectively rebutted the presumption of prejudice.

One of the key factors ends up being the extent to which the dictionary (or in this case, Wikipedia) definition of the term differed from the legally operative definition. The court says that it can’t compare the Wikipedia definition Juror 177 consulted with the correct definition because the juror misconduct only came to light several days after the verdict, and there was nothing in the record to indicate that the definition Juror 177 obtained was the same definition the district court looked at when it compared the Wikpedia page to the definition in the jury instructions:

[t]the government has not argued, nor has it provided evidence establishing, that the Wikipedia entry for the term “sponsor” can be retraced to its form when Juror 177 researched the term.

(The version of the Wikipedia page the district court looked at was printed out 14 days after his search of the term and five days before the district court hearing.) The court acknowledges that Wikipedia keeps an archive of changes, which the government failed to present to the district court. In any event, the court notes that even if historical edits were presented by the government, it could not consider these, absent some indication that Wikipedia archives of historical changes are “accurate and trustworthy.”

The court also considers a “catch-all” factor and notes that Wikipedia has particular “reliability” problems. Looking to Wikipedia’s own about page, the court says that Wikipedia touts itself as being edited and populated by “amateurs.” Indeed, Wikipedia itself cautions that the fact that “anyone [is allowed] to edit Wikipedia means that it is more easily vandalized and susceptible to unchecked information.” While a few courts have cited Wikipedia in their opinions and orders, the court says that litigants have been repeatedly warned against citing Wikipedia as authoritative.


A few days after this opinion was released, the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog published a post looking at which federal appeals courts cite to Wikipedia most often: Which Federal Appeals Court Cites Wikipedia Most Often? (the Seventh Circuit and Ninth Circuit). While courts may cite to Wikipedia, it is ill-advised at best for a litigant to do so, unless it is being cited for the most menial and undisputed proposition (and even in this instance, caution is warranted). Similarly, as demonstrated by this case, a juror’s consultation of Wikipedia can topple a jury verdict.

One question you’re left with is whether the government’s failure to “retrace” Juror 177’s steps was central to the Fourth Circuit’s holding. If the government had produced historical Wikipedia entries and testimony from Wikipedia execs regarding the accuracy of the edit-archiving process, would this have made a difference? I’m tempted to say yes, although the court’s opinion is practically dripping with venom aimed at Wikipedia. It’s abundantly clear from the court’s language that it doesn’t like Wikipedia, and while litigants and judges may cite to it from time-to-time, a jury verdict that is tainted by consultation of Wikipedia is in hot water. As the court noted in Crispin v. Audigier (quoting another district court opinion), “Wikipedia is not a reliable source at this level of discourse.”

[NB: the opinion is interesting in other respects, in particular the court’s discussion of the term “bet” or “wager.” On this score, the court says an event involves a wager where the prize depends on the number of entrants. Where the participants pay an entry fee but this fee does not determine the prize, there may not have been an underlying violation of South Carolina’s gambling law.]

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