October 28, 2021
Digest: Where a judge has learned in the course of the judge’s official judicial duties that another court may have the current address information of an individual who has failed to pay outstanding fines, and the judge has made a good-faith legal determination concerning the lawfulness of issuing a new or amended bench warrant for the individual’s arrest for non-payment of outstanding fines using the new address, the judge may contact the other court and request the defendant’s address as information of public record.
Rules: 22 NYCRR 100.0(S); 100.1; 100.2; 100.2(A); Opinions 19-165; 15-197(A); 15-50; 98-77.
The inquiring town/village justice previously issued a bench warrant for an individual who has failed to pay approximately $1,000 in fines outstanding since 2019. In the judge’s capacity as one of the roster of judges who presides in the county’s centralized arraignment part, the judge received notice that the individual was recently arraigned in a nearby court on an unrelated charge. The judge would like to request the defendant’s current address from the other court so that the judge can issue a new warrant.1
A judge must always avoid even the appearance of impropriety (see 22 NYCRR 100.2), act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the judiciary’s integrity and impartiality (see 22 NYCRR 100.2[A]) and uphold the judiciary’s independence (see 22 NYCRR 100.1; see also 22 NYCRR 100.0[S] [“An ‘independent’ judiciary is one free of outside influences or control”]).
Judges must scrupulously maintain their independence from prosecutors and law enforcement (see e.g. Opinion 15-197[A]). They must be extremely careful not to abandon their neutral judicial role for an investigative or enforcement one. For example, we have said that a judge must not, in order to collect fines or surcharges they have imposed on a defendant, contact another court to ask that payment be made a condition of any disposition of the defendant’s case in the other court (see Opinion 15-50). In a similar vein, a judge also must not assume the role of an advocate for the judge’s own decisions on appeal (see e.g. Opinions 98-77; 19-165).
However, the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct are also “rules of reason.” While judges must avoid even the appearance of serving as investigators, advocates, prosecutors, or law enforcement, they need not turn a blind eye to information they have become aware of in their judicial capacity.
Here, the judge has learned in the course of the judge’s official judicial duties that another court may have the current address information of an individual who has declined to pay outstanding fines for several years. Assuming the judge has made a good-faith legal determination concerning the lawfulness of issuing a new or amended bench warrant for the individual’s arrest for non-payment using the new address (a matter on which we cannot comment), we conclude the judge may contact the other court and request information of public record, much as any member of the public may do.
1 It seems that the judge has concluded, based on prior experience in the judge’s judicial capacity, that the individual is unlikely to pay fines unless brought in on a warrant for a further hearing and, if appropriate, a payment schedule.