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State v. Needelman

Florida Court of Appeals, Fifth District

July 12, 2019

STATE OF FLORIDA, Appellant,
v.
MITCHELL AARON NEEDELMAN, Appellee.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE MOTION FOR REHEARING AND DISPOSITION THEREOF IF FILED

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Seminole County, Marlene M. Alva, Judge.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Pamela J. Koller, Assistant Attorney General, Daytona Beach, for Appellant.

          Lisabeth J. Fryer, of Lisabeth J. Fryer, P.A., Lake Mary, and William R. Ponall, of Ponall Law, Maitland, and Warren W. Lindsey, of Lindsey & Ferry, P.A., Winter Park for Appellee.

          EDWARDS, J.

         Jurors who tweet, blog, and surf continue to disrupt and derail lengthy trials, resulting in mistrials and the unnecessary waste of public and private resources.[1] A jury trial that lasted approximately two weeks and resulted in guilty verdicts against former Brevard County Clerk of the Court, Mitchell Aaron Needelman, will have to be retried because one juror, Lisa Mausner, refused to follow the trial court's instructions that jurors, on penalty of contempt of court, were not to do any online research into the facts or law. The situation here appears to be unique in that the juror's misconduct arguably affected only two of the four counts for which guilty verdicts were returned. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm the trial court's order that granted a new trial as to all counts.

         POSTTRIAL DISCOVERY OF JUROR MISCONDUCT

         The possibility of juror misconduct was raised posttrial when another juror approached defense counsel in the parking lot and suggested there had been improper deliberations prior to closing arguments. That allegation was investigated through court-ordered questioning and found to be unsubstantiated. When interviewing jurors regarding the original claimed juror misconduct, it came to light that Juror Mausner had repeatedly engaged in online legal research and had shared her results with some of the other jurors.

         During the posttrial questioning, Juror Mausner reluctantly admitted that she did a Google search to determine whether the proper number of jurors was being seated. She advised some of her fellow jurors that instead of twelve jurors, there would be only six actual jurors with two others serving as alternates.

         As questioning continued, Juror Mausner repeatedly denied doing any other legal research.[2] However, when pressed, she very reluctantly confirmed what others had already told the trial court-she did a search "just out of curiosity" to find out what potential sentence Needelman faced if convicted of bribery. She did not initially admit that she told others about the possible sentence, but finally confessed that it "came up" during deliberations. Another juror testified that Juror Mausner provided information about the possible sentence because he was concerned that the penalty for bribery could be fifty years in prison. Juror Mausner said she might have told other jurors that she had done some general research and that the penalty was five to ten years.[3] Juror Mausner admitted that she "might have" looked up the definition of bribery as well and could have shared that with others on the jury. She also improperly shared her work-related knowledge with the jury by advising them that the judge would order a presentence investigation before determining the penalty that would be imposed.[4]

         The trial court found that what Juror Mausner had done amounted to juror misconduct that could have affected deliberations. More specifically, the trial court noted that the "definition of bribery was the central issue in two of the charged counts and any possibility that a juror or the jurors collectively relied upon an incorrect definition of that term must be deemed to be prejudicial." A new trial on all counts was ordered; however, the trial court did not announce why the new trial would not be limited to only the bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery charges that were directly related to the juror's misconduct. The State concedes that a new trial is appropriate for the two bribery-related counts. However, the State argues that because there was no evidence regarding juror misconduct or provision of extrinsic information on the bid tampering and official misconduct counts, the jury's deliberations on those charges were untainted, so that those two guilty verdicts should not have been disturbed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A trial court's order granting a new trial is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Thigpen v. United Parcel Servs., Inc., 990 So.2d 639, 644 (Fla. 4th DCA 2008). On appeal, this amounts to a reasonableness test: "If an appellate court determines that reasonable persons could differ as to the propriety of the action taken by the trial court, there can be no finding of an abuse of discretion." Brown v. Estate of Stuckey, 749 So.2d 490, 498 (Fla. 1999). A trial court is given broader discretion to grant a new trial than to deny one. Thigpen, 990 So.2d at 645. Such a ruling ...


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