Opinion  CJE Opinion No. 2002-20

Date: 12/20/2002
Organization: Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

After the Committee on Judicial Ethics issued this opinion, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court adopted a revised Code of Judicial Conduct. Because this opinion was rendered under a prior version of the Code, a judge should not rely on it without contacting the Committee on Judicial Ethics.

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Committee on Judicial Ethics

Table of Contents

Accepting Free Services from Surveillance Company

You have requested an opinion from the Committee on Judicial Ethics about whether you may accept surveillance services provided at no cost by a video surveillance company that operates in the town where you live. According to your request, these are the circumstances. You live in a house that is set back a considerable distance from the street. For the past eighteen months, articles of trash have been left at the entrance to your driveway. Some of the trash includes broken glass that, on two occasions, has cut a member of your family. Recently, some items of trash left at the end of the driveway have been quite offensive. For a variety of reasons, you have concluded that the trash is being left by someone who wishes to "make a statement" about some facet of your service as a judge.

You have reported the incidents to the local police department, which has undertaken surveillance in an attempt to apprehend the depositors. That surveillance has been unsuccessful. You have offered to pay for a detail officer to secrete himself or herself in nearby woodlands where, perhaps, he or she would have a better chance of spotting the offenders. The department, however, has told you that it views the trash deposits as a public safety issue and has declined your request to pay for a detail officer.

As an alternative to a paid detail officer or other investigatory methods, the department contacted a local video surveillance company and arranged placement of video surveillance cameras in the vicinity of your driveway. The officer heading the investigation then told you to contact the company's owner to arrange for a time when the cameras could be installed. The officer did not tell you anything about any financial arrangements that the department had made regarding the services.

As it turns out, the company is owned by a retired state trooper who is your long standing personal friend. Neither the friend nor his company has ever come before you, nor do you expect that either will do so in the future. When you contacted the friend to make arrangements, you asked how much the installation would cost. He told you that he was donating the services without charge and that he had in the past donated like services to the town, particularly in connection with investigations initiated by his personal friends. You asked him what he would charge a paying customer for similar services, and he responded simply by saying that the services would be "very expensive."

In this context, you have asked whether you may accept the surveillance services from your friend's company. At the outset, however, the committee has some doubt about whether your friend is providing the services to you. The police department initiated the request for services. The department already had refused your request to pay for a detail officer because it believed that the trash deposits were a public safety issue. The friend and his company have also donated similar services to the town on past occasions. Under those circumstances, a strong argument can be made that the services are being provided to the town, not to you.

That said, your friend did tell you that he had donated like services to the town in the past "particularly when friends were the initiators of the investigation" requiring the services. There is, therefore, some link between your friend's donation of services and his friendship with you. Accordingly, the prudent course would be to view the services as a gift to you notwithstanding the strong possibility that they are, in fact, a gift to the town.

Viewing the services as a gift to you, the relevant Canon is Canon 5 (C) (4) (c). In material part, that Canon says this:

"(4) Neither a judge nor a member of his family residing in his household should accept a gift . . . from anyone except as follows:

(a) [gifts of nominal value];

(b) [ordinary social hospitality and the like];

(c) a judge or a member of his family residing in his household may accept any other gift . . . only if the donor is not a party or other person whose interests have come or are likely to come before him, and, if its value exceeds $350, the judge reports it in the same manner as he reports compensation [pursuant to] Canon 6 (C)."  

Canon 6 (C) describes the annual reports of extrajudicial income judges must file with the Supreme Judicial Court before April 15 of each year.

In light of the foregoing, the committee is of the opinion that, although a strong argument can be made that the surveillance services are a donation to the town, the prudent course is to regard those services as a gift to you. So regarded, you may accept the gift provided that, if its value exceeds $350, you report its receipt when you file your statement of extrajudicial income with the Supreme Judicial Court next year.

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