In the context of trials, the isolation of a jury from the public, or the separation of witnesses to ensure the integrity of testimony. In other legal contexts the seizure of property or the freezing of assets by court order.
In jury trials, judges sometimes choose to sequester the jurors, or place them beyond public reach. Usually the jurors are moved into a hotel, kept under close supervision twenty-four hours a day, denied access to outside media such as television and newspapers, and allowed only limited contact with their families.
Although unpopular with jurors, sequestration has two broad purposes. The first is to avoid the accidental tainting of the jury, and the second is to prevent others from intentionally tampering with the jurors by bribe or threat. Trial publicity, public sentiment, interested parties, and the maneuverings and machinations of lawyers outside the courtroom can all taint the jurors' objectivity and deny the defendant a fair trial. Judges are free to sequester the jury whenever they believe any of these factors may affect the trial's outcome.
Jury sequestration is rare. Typically ordered in sensational, high-profile criminal cases, sequestration begins immediately after the jury is seated and lasts until the jury has delivered its verdict. It is unusual for juries to be sequestered longer than a few days or a week. Occasionally, however, jurors are sequestered for weeks. The 1995 trial of former football star O. J. (Orenthal James) Simpson for murder was highly unusual: the Simpson jury was sequestered for eight and a half months—half as long as the period Simpson was imprisoned while under arrest and on trial. The experience provoked protest from the jurors and calls for legal reform.
The sequestration of witnesses differs from that of jurors. Whereas jurors are kept away from the public, witnesses typically are ordered not to attend the trial—or follow accounts of it—until they are to testify. This judicial order is intended to assure that the witnesses will testify concerning their own knowledge of the case without being influenced by testimony of prior witnesses. Witness sequestration also seeks to strengthen the role of cross-examination in developing facts.
Other definitions of sequestration relate to property. In CIVIL LAW, sequester has three distinct meanings. First, it means to renounce or disclaim, as when a widow appears in court and disclaims any interest in the estate of her deceased husband; the widow is said to sequester. Second, it means to take something that is the subject of a controversy out of the possession of the contending parties and deposit it in the hands of a third person; this neutral party is called a sequestor. Third and most commonly, sequestration in civil law denotes the act of seizing property by court order.
In litigation and EQUITY practice, sequestration also refers to court-ordered confiscation of property. When one party sues another over an unpaid debt, the plaintiff may secure a writ of attachment. As another form of sequestration, this legal order temporarily seizes the alleged debtor's property in order to secure the debt or claim in the event that the plaintiff is successful. In equity practice—an antiquated system of justice that is now incorporated into civil justice—courts seize a defendant's property until the defendant purges herself of a charge of CONTEMPT.
In INTERNATIONAL LAW, the term sequestration signifies confiscation. Typically, it means the appropriation of private property to public use. Following a war, sequestration means the seizure of the property of the private citizens of a hostile power, as when a belligerent nation sequesters debts due from its own subjects to the enemy.