New Hampshire courts are considering a bill that would require criminal court judges to inform juror that they can acquit if they don't agree with the law, also known as the nullification principle. Tim Lynch, Director of the CATO Institute, a public policy research organization dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government and free markets and peace, explains the nullification principle as when the jury is deliberating in a criminal case, they may have conclude that there's proof beyond a reasonable doubt the the person on trial is in violation of the law but they nevertheless conclude it would be unjust to come back with a guilty verdict.
Lynch says there are a few situations where the nullification principle would apply. A jury may think the law itself is unjust, that the law is okay on paper but not as it applies to the circumstances of the case or there may be so many charge being filed against the defendant, it's like "overkill" be the prosecution.
Someone growing marijuana for medicinal or religious reasons, wherein the jury thinks it's not right to find that person guilty is a classic example, says Lynch. The jury would sympathize with the defendant by saying that sending that person to prison doesn't make sense and come back with a not guilty verdict.
Lynch thinks the nullification principle is a good thing and says that if you take a few steps back, the police have a lot of discretion on who they're going to arrest or let go with a warning and the prosecution has a lot of discretion on which charges they're going to file, so "it makes perfect sense to give jurors a little more discretion about what they think is a just outcome in the case," Lynch says. He adds that jurors have always had this power to come back with a not guilty verdict and that judges can't overrule an acquittal.
New Hampshire would just be making jurors aware of this principle and not mislead them by thinking they have to follow the letter of the law, says Lynch. In most jurisdictions across the country, he says they judge tells the jurors right before they deliberate to follow the instructions and the letter of the law as the judge describes to them. New Hampshire is saying you can bring your conscience and feelings about justice into the court case and don't feel guilty about it.
If this bill gets passed and is in place for a couple of years without the "dire prognostications" coming out, Lynch thinks this could be a trend with other jurisdictions following suit.
Tim Lynch is the Director of the CATO Institute and spoke with The Legal Broadcast Network, providing online, on-demand legal video content. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.