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Sequestration, a term meaning “to set apart,” is used in several different contexts in the legal community. It can refer to setting apart people, temporarily holding property, or freezing assets, for somewhat different reasons. Usually sequestration is ordered when there is a concern that interference could result in a miscarriage of justice or when there is a worry that someone may attempt to abscond with property or assets if they are not set aside.
In terms of people, one form of sequestration is jury sequestration. A jury may be sequestered when there is a reason to fear jury tampering. For the duration of the trial and the juror deliberations, the jurors are isolated from the public so that people cannot intimidate, bribe, or otherwise interfere with the jurors. This may also be done when a case is so high profile that there are concerns that the jurors will be exposed to prejudicial information, ranging from reports on the news to comments from friends and family members.
Witnesses are also sequestered. Commonly, witnesses are not allowed to sit in the courtroom when they are not testifying. This is done to prevent prejudice. If, for example, a witness hears an account from another witness, she or he may change the story told on the stand. Sequestering witnesses is designed to ensure that witnesses use their own words and only testify about facts they personally know.
Assets and property can be sequestered by court order to await the outcome of a trial. This may be done in ownership disputes, with the court taking custody until the matter is decided, and it can also occur in cases in which there are worries that someone may attempt to remove, damage, or otherwise compromise property and assets. Sequestration orders can extend to items which are not directly being used as evidence in a trial. Property which is sequestered must be adequately cared for while it is under the supervision of the court.
When property and assets are seized or frozen as a result of such an order, the process must be documented in detail. Receipts must be provided and the property will only be released when the rightful owner is identified and confirmed. If someone believes that assets have been wrongly seized, the sequestration can be challenged. This provides mechanisms for appeal in situations where, for example, John Q. Public's bank account is mistakenly frozen instead of John R. Public's account.
I had never realized that witnesses were supposed to be sequestered. In the movies they often bring out the surprise, star witness with a big flourish but I thought that was more because they wanted to keep it a secret from the other lawyers (and the audience) until the last minute.
Often they'll show a person who is also a witness sitting in the room the whole time the trial is on I guess for the dramatic effect.
I know, I know, it's a little silly to take law proceedings on a TV show for granted as real.
I think it would bug me though, if I was a witness for something, to never know what the other people were saying, however practical that might be.
It's getting to the point where it is almost impossible to truly sequester a jury. What with the technology that most people carry around in their pockets now. If you have an I-phone, you'll have access to all the news reports you care to look up, which means that you can absolutely be influenced by the media, even in a jury room. And it can be hard to justify taking a phone off someone who might need it to communicate with their children or something. Even putting someone in a hotel and taking their phone away might not work if they have cable TV, or an internet connection.
And most of the time the damage is already done on big, high profile cases, with the media reporting on crimes before they even get to the jury stage.