When Karyn Meunier saw the blue police lights in her rear-view mirror as she drove through Georgetown on her way to work last month, she was perplexed. She hadn't run a stop sign or a red light, she was going the speed limit, and her car was registered and insured.
In fact, Meunier, 39, of Haverhill, said she had never even been stopped by the police before.
So she stopped her car and complied with the request to hand over her license and registration.
Then came the shocker.
The officer asked her to step out of the car, saying she had an outstanding arrest warrant for skipping jury duty in Newburyport District Court nearly a decade ago.
"He said, 'I'm going to have to take you in,'" recalled a horrified Meunier, who works with autistic children at a special needs school in Beverly. "He put the handcuffs on me — behind my back — and shoved me in the police cruiser."
And that was just the beginning of her ordeal, which started, she said, with a clerical error made in Newburyport District Court in November 2000 that failed to clear a warrant for her arrest. The court denies making the mistake.
The Office of the Jury Commissioner in Boston says it is extremely rare for people to be taken into custody for missing jury duty, in large part because the system has a series of checks and balances created to avoid arrests. In fact, the state has become better at tracking people who have missed jury duty thanks to a computer system installed in 2006.
But police said they had no choice but to arrest Meunier, because the computer system used in police cruisers is linked to a nationwide database that they say is factual and reliable.
For Meunier, however, the whole affair was disturbing and unnecessary.
After her arrest, she was taken to the Georgetown Police Station, where she was photographed and fingerprinted, then held in a jail cell for 30 minutes.
Police put her into another cruiser that took her to the Haverhill District Court, where she was put in leg irons and stuck in a cell that was next to another cell holding a group of men who had been picked up the night before on drug charges, among other infractions.
While in the Georgetown cell, she had to go to the bathroom, and pleaded with the matron to be given access to a private room. She was told she had to use the toilet in the cell.
"There's a camera in the cell," she said. "I had to use it, or I was going to be sick. It was humiliating and degrading and an invasion of my privacy."
While being held, Meunier was able to make two calls, so she phoned her husband and work, telling them she was detained — literally.
After another 30 minutes in a Haverhill cell, she was released, and a court officer handed her a piece of paper saying that she was scheduled for a court appearance the next day in Newburyport District Court.
She was incredulous.
"How can you go from having a warrant and being locked up to being let out and told to have a court hearing the next day?" she asked.
Instead, she and her husband and sister drove directly to the court and asked that the warrant be dismissed. The prosecutor complied, and according to the docket on the case, Judge Allen Swan dismissed the warrant Oct. 21, the day she was arrested.
Adding insult to injury, when she finally returned to Georgetown to get her car, she had to pay $110 just to get it out of a tow lot.
The incident has left Meunier shaken, with more questions than answers about what happened to her.
Meunier said the problem started in Newburyport District Court, where a clerical error failed to clear the warrant even though she attended a Nov. 17, 2000, arraignment for failing to show up for jury duty. She admits that she missed jury duty, but said that as soon as she got the summons, she rushed to the court to clear her name.
During that hearing, she thought the warrant had been cleared.
According to the district court clerk's office, however, Meunier never showed up for that hearing.
Meunier's sister, Lori Goodhue, who works as a paralegal, said she remembers accompanying her sister to that hearing, and hearing the judge tell them that the warrant had been cleared. But they never got any paperwork proving that the warrant had been released, she said in an e-mail.
Whatever happened, the arrest warrant remained in place.
So when Meunier drove through Georgetown at 7:40 a.m. on Oct. 21, on her way to work at the North Shore Educational Consortium, she was stopped by Officer Phillip Klibansky, who was conducting routine license plate checks.
Georgetown police Chief James Mulligan said officers routinely check the license plates of cars going through town for such things as outstanding warrants. When Meunier drove by, Klibansky typed her license plate number into his cruiser's computer and found that she had an active warrant against her.
He pulled her over and arrested her, treating her like anyone else being sought on a warrant.
"He only would have known it was an active arrest warrant," Mulligan said, adding that if the arrest had happened during court hours, it's possible that someone at the station could have called the court to find out if there had been some kind of an error. But since it was so early in the morning, he said, "there was no one to call."
He noted that the information contained in the computer database comes from the Criminal Justice Information System, a nationwide database that contains information about millions of people involved in crimes ranging from missing jury duty to murder.
Klibansky was merely following protocol when he arrested Meunier.
"Failing to appear is one of worst things someone can do because it starts a chain reaction of misdemeanor arrest warrants," he said, adding that the computer "doesn't tell us how old the warrant is. It makes no difference to us. It's the same offense. It's saying, 'This person was ordered to appear and failed to appear.' The court in this case is ordering the police to take that person into custody and answer for this offense. We have no option."
But Meunier said she disagrees with that approach.
"You think they'd treat me differently than someone who robbed a bank or hit a pedestrian while going through a red light," she said. "They could see my record. They could see it was completely clean, except for the 10-year-old warrant that was there because of a clerical error."
The incident also raises questions about the lengths to which the state will go to seek out and prosecute jury scofflaws.
Massachusetts has taken steps in recent years to crack down on no shows, but state Jury Commissioner Pamela Wood said arrests for failing to show up for jury duty are "extremely rare."
She said that since she's been commissioner, she's only heard of a handful.
"There are fewer than three to five arrests per year," Wood said. "There have been years where there have been no arrests."
The reason, she said, is that so many steps are taken before it gets to the point where someone is arrested.
"It takes a while to get to the arraignment stage," Wood said. "We go to great lengths to help you resolve these."
In particular, her agency bombards jury scofflaws with notices that they missed their appearance and have a number of ways to make up for it.
In 2006, for example, the office mailed 10,983 applications for criminal complaints to people who had failed to show up for jury duty. In 2007, thanks to better tracking software, the figure jumped to 19,203.
Ordinarily, these notices get people's attention, and they rush to court to clear it up, often by agreeing to serve on a jury in another case.
But Goodhue said her sister, who has lived in the same house for nearly 20 years, never got any notices from the Office of Jury Commissioner prior to the notice of the arraignment, which she promptly responded to.
Ironically, Meunier said she did serve on a jury last year in Lawrence — not to make up for missing the first trial, but because she was called up for jury duty there.
What galls her the most, she said, is that nobody along the way has apologized for the way she was treated or that she had to pay to get her car out of the tow lot.
"I was a citizen falsely arrested, but treated as if I was a common criminal," Meunier said.
In fact, she said, when she went to Newburyport District Court last week, the prosecutor and judge found a piece of paper that showed she attended the Nov. 17, 2000, hearing and had been cleared.
"He looked at the court officer, they kind of mumbled, said 'Oops,' and the prosecutor said, 'We're dismissing this.' But they told me to keep it in my car for a while — in case I get pulled over again."
Join the discussion. To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to eagletribune.com.
Cracking down on no-shows
Thanks to a new, state-of-the-art computer system, Massachusetts has been cracking down on people who skip out on jury duty in recent years.
When people fail to show up, a criminal complaint is issued, and the person is summoned to court for arraignment. If they skip that hearing, a warrant is issued, and the person can be arrested for a misdemeanor carrying a fine of $2,000.
According to the state, the no-show rate was 13.3 percent when the crackdown began. It has dropped to about 6.4 percent in recent years, well below the average national rate of 8.9 percent.
Though low, that delinquency rate is still higher than in New Hampshire, where the cases are handled by county, instead of statewide.
Raymond Taylor, the clerk of courts for Rockingham County, said his office sends out around 250 letters for jury duty each month. Typically, only about 10 people, or 4 percent, don't show. And he said most of those people have moved.
If someone does skip out on jury duty, they can be called into court for a show cause hearing before a judge, and if they skip that, a warrant can be issued for their arrest. But the penalty is much lower — just $100 — and Taylor said that rarely happens anymore.