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Can a Jury Be Called Back After the Judge Says Goodbye?

Imagine this: a jury is summoned to hear a case and reaches its verdict.

The judge says, "You're free to go," and the jurors file out and prepare to head their separate ways. Can the judge call them back and ask them to deliberate all over again?

Surprisingly, there's no clear answer to that question, but the Supreme Court will be asked Tuesday to come up with one, in a case that begins with running a red light.

Rocky Dietz, a North Dakota pipefitter visiting his mother in Bozeman, Montana, was driving to the gas station when a car driven by a Montana man, Hillary Bouldin, ran a red light and crashed into his car.

The collision injured Dietz's back, so he sued Bouldin for the cost of the required physical therapy and other medical expenses. The case wound up in federal court, where Bouldin admitted he was at fault and agreed that the medical bills amounted to about $10,000. The only question was how much more he'd have to pay to cover future costs.

During deliberations, the jury sent a note to the judge asking if the medical expenses had already been paid and, if so, by whom. Never mind that, the judge said, that's not germane.

The jury ruled for Rocky Dietz, but awarded him nothing — zero dollars. The judge thanked the jurors and told them, "You're free to go. The jury's discharged."

A short time later, the judge realized that the verdict wasn't legally permissible, because it had to be at least the $10,000 amount that was agreed on. So he ordered that the jurors be rounded up and brought back.

Image: File photo of the U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington
A view of the U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, in this October 13, 2015 file photo. JONATHAN ERNST / Reuters

Most of them had never left the courthouse, though one had gone to get a hotel receipt. After satisfying himself that the jurors didn't discuss the case with anyone else, the judge ordered them to deliberate again and reach a different verdict.

The next morning, they awarded Dietz $15,000, and the judge let them go again. Dietz appealed, saying he should have gotten a new trial, but he lost in a lower federal court.

Now he's asking the Supreme Court to rule that when jurors have been discharged, the judge lacks authority to call them back. Once they leave the courtroom, they encounter outside influences, and they might change their minds, he argues.

Bouldin responds that what judges have the power to do, they have the power to undo, especially when the time and expense of a trial are at stake.

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The extensive body of rules governing federal trials is completely silent on whether a jury can be recalled, and the courts of appeal have split on the issue.

The Obama Justice Department sides with Bouldin, but says "given the natural propensity of jurors to talk to friends and family about a completed trial," it will be the rare case when a judge can conclude that a jury can be called back after returning home. In this case, the government says, the judge acted quickly enough.

A decision is expected by June. Whatever the justices decide, no one can order them to come back and try again.