June 3 - 4, 2009
Digest: It is ethically permissible for a town justice to add the District Attorney’s website address to the Office of Court Administration-approved information form for defendants charged with Vehicle and Traffic Law violations. However, before doing so the judge should obtain approval from his/her administrative judge.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.2; 100.2(A); Opinion 96-132 (Vol. XV).
A town justice asks if it is ethically permissible to add the District Attorney’s website address to the Office of Court Administration’s (OCA) approved information form designed for defendants charged with Vehicle and Traffic Law violations. The OCA-approved form informs such defendants of the procedural options available to dispose of their charges. According to the judge, a defendant can visit the District Attorney’s website to complete the District Attorney’s on-line application to dispose of a traffic infraction. The judge seeks to add, “See the following website link [link]” to the OCA-approved form.
A judge must avoid impropriety and its appearance in all his/her activities (see 22 NYCRR 100.2), and must always act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the judiciary’s integrity and impartiality(see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]).
The Committee previously has advised that the court itself should not mail to defendants or make available to defendants in the courtroom, a District Attorney’s application form for plea agreements in Vehicle and Traffic Law cases (see Opinion 96-132 [Vol. XV]). In the Committee’s view, the court should not be the source or inspiration for a plea agreement as it would create an appearance of partiality and an indication that the judge is predisposed towards the defendant’s guilt (see, id.). However, the Committee also has advised that a court may distribute a form to defendants charged with Vehicle and Traffic Law offenses that lists all of a defendant’s potential options for disposing of a case, including the right to plead not guilty and to proceed to trial (see Opinion 99-82 [Vol. XVIII]). The OCA subsequently approved such a form for use by town and village justices, which is the form the inquiring judge seeks to amend.
The Committee sees it as ethically permissible for the inquiring judge to add the website address for a link to the District Attorney’s on-line application form for disposing of a traffic infraction to the OCA-approved information form. Unlike the circumstances in Opinion 96-132 (Vol. XV), including the District Attorney’s website address does not create an appearance of partiality or an indication that the judge is predisposed towards a defendant’s guilt. Rather, it is consistent with the purpose of the OCA form, namely, to inform defendants of all their options for disposing of a case, and provide them with information they need to contact the District Attorney to request a disposition.
While adding the District Attorney’s website address to the OCA-approved form is ethically permissible, the Committee strongly suggests that the inquiring judge seek the approval of his/her administrative judge before doing so.