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In re Rennaker

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division

April 16, 2018

IN RE BRITTNEY RENNAKER

          MEMORANDUM OPINION ON CIVIL AND CRIMINAL CONTEMPT

          ROBERT J. JONKER CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Juror service, whether on a petit or grand jury, is both an obligation and an opportunity. It is an obligation in the sense that all citizens called to serve must interrupt their normal lives for a time, go to court, and fill a vital role in the justice system. But it is also an opportunity to continue a tradition of democratic input from citizens to their government and, for those summoned, an opportunity to learn more about that government. In the Spring of 2017, this burden and privilege fell on Ms. Brittney Rennaker when she was called to serve as a grand juror in this district. Ms. Rennaker failed to participate in the process, however, and in doing so has persisted in deliberately violating several court orders. Therefore, for the reasons detailed below, Ms. Rennaker is in both civil and criminal contempt of court and will be imprisoned for a period of thirty days for such conduct.

         I. FACTS

         A. First Show Cause Order

         Ms. Rennaker was selected to serve on Grand Jury 17-2 in February 2017. She appeared for the first session of the grand jury in March of that year but not thereafter. When contacted by the Court's jury administrator after missing these sessions Ms. Rennaker offered several excuses for her absences, including having been mistaken about the dates the grand jury was to meet, and needing to care for a sick child. Then, when Ms. Rennaker failed to appear for yet another session, Ms. Rennaker simply stopped responding to inquiries from the Court. Accordingly, the Court issued its First Show Cause Order that required Ms. Rennaker to appear in open court to explain her absences from the Grand Jury. (ECF No. 1). Ms. Rennaker then appeared at the July 10, 2017, Show Cause hearing where she explained that she was confused about the Grand Jury's schedule. The Court subsequently ordered Ms. Rennaker to appear for all future scheduled Grand Jury 17-2 sessions and gave her a schedule of those sessions to prevent any further confusion. The Court's order also stated that Ms. Rennaker would only be permitted to be absent from a session with the advanced written permission of the Court's authorized representative. (ECF No. 4). The Court warned Ms. Rennaker that her failure to abide by the terms of the Order could lead the Court to find her in contempt of court with sanctions that could include imprisonment. (Id.).

         B. Second Show Cause Order

         After the July 10th hearing, Ms. Rennaker attended some Grand Jury 17-2 sessions, but then was absent from multiple Grand Jury 17-2 sessions in September and October of 2017. Ms. Rennaker did not receive advanced written permission to be excused from those sessions. The foreperson of the Grand Jury also requested that Ms. Rennaker be excused from the Grand Jury so that a more reliable alternate juror could be substituted. The Court issued a Second Show Cause Order to Ms. Rennaker on October 4, 2017. (ECF No. 5). The Order required Ms. Rennaker to again appear personally in open court to explain why she should not be found in contempt of court and sanctioned for missing Grand Jury 17-2 sessions without advanced written permission. (ECF No. 5). The Court also granted the request that Ms. Rennaker be relieved of her service as a grand juror, and directed that an alternate be summoned.

         Ms. Rennaker appeared at the Second Show Cause hearing on November 7, 2017. After hearing from Ms. Rennaker the Court was satisfied that civil contempt sanctions were warranted, but gave Ms. Rennaker an opportunity to avoid imprisonment. Specifically, the Court structured a community service protocol to substitute for the Grand Jury service that Ms. Rennaker would have otherwise provided. Ms. Rennaker was ordered to serve a total of 90 hours of community service by July 31, 2018, which amounted to five hours for each of the 18 days the Court understood remained on the Grand Jury's schedule.[1] (ECF No. 7). Ms. Rennaker was required to report to the Probation Office closest to her home to satisfy this sanction.

         The Court's Order also explained that Ms. Rennaker owed the time she was obligated to serve on the Grand Jury, either on community service, or in custody, as she chose. Cf. In re Schramm, 432 F.Supp.2d 711 (E.D. Mich. 2006). Thus for every five hours of service Ms. Rennaker failed to complete by July 31, 2018, she would be required to serve one day in the custody of the United States Marshals. (Id.).

         C. Third Show Cause Order

         Initially, it appeared that Ms. Rennaker was fulfilling her community service obligations. The probation officer received reports from Ms. Rennaker that she was performing community service at the Battle Creek Friends Church. She gave the probation officer a name (Alicia) and a phone number to verify her service. Ms. Rennaker reported performing 12 hours of service in November and another 15 in December and January. The probation officer confirmed these hours with "Alicia" at the number Ms. Rennaker provided.

         In February 2018, Ms. Rennaker did not report to the probation officer as scheduled. When the officer contacted Ms. Rennaker by phone for an explanation Ms. Rennaker told the officer that she was sick with the flu, but that she had worked another seven or nine hours since her last report. Ms. Rennaker promised to fax documents to the officer that would confirm this work, but Ms. Rennaker did not do so. When the probation officer contacted Ms. Rennaker again, Ms. Rennaker failed to respond. In fact, Ms. Rennaker failed to respond to five separate follow up calls from the officer on four separate days and, at least once, the phone was answered but then was hung up after the officer identified herself. The probation officer next decided to contact "Alicia" but discovered the number was disconnected. The officer then found the Battle Creek Friends Church number in a public directory, and learned from the church's HR director that there was no "Alicia" at the church, and furthermore that there was no Brittney Rennaker who was performing community service at or for the church.

         The Court issued a Third Show Cause Order on March 5, 2018. (ECFNo. 10). In the Order, the Court set out the information relayed from the probation officer and indicated that the most natural conclusion from these facts was that Ms. Rennaker had lied to the probation officer and was not complying with the community service alternative to custody. The Court's Show Cause Order stated that, if true, this conduct exposed Ms. Rennaker to criminal liability, whether by criminal contempt or otherwise, with the possibility of punitive imprisonment. Because of the criminal exposure, the Court appointed Ms. Rennaker counsel for the show cause hearing.

         Ms. Rennaker's appointed counsel requested a continuance, and the Show Cause hearing was adjourned until April 13, 2018. At that hearing, Ms. Rennaker appeared with her appointed counsel and admitted under oath that she had not performed any community service. Ms. Rennaker testified she panicked after the Second Show Cause hearing and that she followed some "bad advice" from her friend Alicia. Namely, Ms. Rennaker stated that Alicia told her to provide the probation officer with Alicia's name, and that Alicia would tell the officer that Ms. Rennaker was working at the Battle Creek Friends Church. Ms. Rennaker would then provide false information to the ...


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