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Judges must avoid advice, talk of reform, in police training, ethics panel says

Judges who speak at police training sessions must stick to discussing the law and legal process and avoid topics related to testifying in court or the merits of police reform, the Maryland Judicial Ethics Committee stated this week.

Providing information that could be perceived as courtroom advice to future police witnesses or as an opinion on policing issues likely to be litigated violates a judge’s ethical obligation to “act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary,” the committee wrote in a published opinion.

“Police officers appear in court frequently,” the ethics panel wrote. “Generally, they are witnesses for the prosecution in a criminal case. A discussion of conduct to improve their effectiveness that goes beyond discussion of the law and legal process reflects adversely on the impartiality of the judiciary.”

The committee offered its view at the request of a judge who asked about participating in a discussion with police recruits as part of their entry level training program. The program’s leader has sought the judge’s participation with other local leaders to discuss police and community concerns, stated the panel, which did not disclose the judge’s name but referred to him or her as “the requestor.”

“(E)thically, judges may speak about the law and legal process and may so in this instance,” the panel wrote. “But the requestor may not go beyond that. The requestor may not offer tips and legal opinions from the perspective of a police officer.”

Attorney Cary J. Hansel III, who represents plaintiffs in police brutality lawsuits, welcomed the committee’s opinion but said Friday it does not sufficiently warn judges that participating in officer training leaves them vulnerable to being called as a witness in a case alleging negligent police training or in which the accused officer claims he or she acted as trained.

“Allowing judges to participate in police training opens the possibility of officers to later blame the training for misconduct,” said Hansel, of Hansel Law PC in Baltimore.

“I have every reason to believe that judges would offer appropriate training but in doing so they open themselves to claims to the contrary by police and to the potential to being witnesses in negligent training cases,” Hansel added. “We are lucky in Maryland to have an excellent bench capable of making appropriate judgments. I am certain that any Maryland judge contemplating participation would give these issues due consideration.”

In its opinion, the ethics panel said judges should be especially cautious when participating in free-flowing community discussions, as opposed to leading a class on criminal procedure in which they have control over the topics and how they are addressed. A judge should tell discussion participants of the ethical restrictions and why he or she will not answer certain questions and will remain silent while others speak, the committee added.

“We cannot foresee the details of the discussion during the training program and cannot compile an exhaustive list of activities that are not ethically protected,” the committee wrote. “By way of example only, the requestor may not give tips relating to demeanor, decorum, or other aspects of witness credibility; cannot criticize the law or otherwise comment on topics from the perspective of a police officer; cannot discuss community policing principles that go beyond principles of law; and cannot comment on topics related to police reform.”

In the interest of impartiality, a judge who participates in a discussion for fledgling officers “should be open to appropriate requests from other groups or organizations whose interests may not be fully aligned with those of a police training academy,” the ethics panel added.

Maryland Court of Special Appeals Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff chairs the 13-member committee, which consists of six sitting judges, three former judges, a circuit court clerk, a judicial appointee and two people who are neither lawyers nor employed by the Maryland Judiciary.