It is important to ensure that court stakeholders are able to participate in task forces. However, it is equally important to understand their role in the judicial process and the potential ethical and procedural boundaries that may create issues.
Participation in Human Trafficking Task Forces
Task force leaders should ensure that their activities avoid potential interactions (such as the following) that may affect a case if court officials, such as judges and defense attorneys, are part of the task force:
- Ex parte communications
Key Term: Ex Parte Communications
Ex parte communications are any oral or written communications relevant to the adjudication process that are directly conveyed to the judge by a party to the case, without the knowledge of the other parties. This maneuver is usually an attempt by one side of the case to give the court "exclusive" information, but such information may be received from a third party.
- Receipt of nondiscoverable materials
- Case-specific information
- Provision of legal advisement
- Any compromise of the neutrality of separate proceedings.
To prevent a conflict of interest, court representatives must remove themselves from any sensitive task force activity where case-specific information (e.g., name, date of birth, identifying characteristics, history, and current or past events of a specifically identified victim or the target of an investigation) is being shared or divulged. Judicial officers shall avoid ex parte communications and nondiscoverable information. Any information that is offered to a magistrate or judge is subject to the discovery process and must be made available to both the defense attorneys and the prosecutors during a hearing.
A standard prohibition on all members of the court disallows judges and magistrates from giving legal advice, and this applies as strongly during a court proceeding as it does at a speaking engagement or task force meeting. For example, judicial officers should not make a definitive statement with regard to how the court would sentence a human trafficking perpetrator to a maximum sentence. This type of statement would be considered prejudicial and would potentially place the judicial officer (or the court in general) at risk of a conflict of interest on a particular case.
Avoiding Conflict of Interest
Although there may be some barriers to a court stakeholder's participation in task forces, potential ways to mitigate these issues include the following:
- Isolate case-specific information to a separate subcommittee, with membership determined on a need-to-know basis.
- Assign task force members who may have conflicts of interest (such as judges, magistrates, and defense attorneys) to participate solely in general meetings and on specific committees to avoid potential disclosure issues. For example, such court officers can participate in outreach and public awareness and in training but might avoid the victim services and law enforcement committees, which are more likely to have case-specific communication.
- Include all task force members in a formal protocol (or memorandum of understanding and protocols) that delineates specific agency roles and establishes the rules under which information will (or will not) be shared. In particular, the creation and maintenance of a list of victims or high-risk individuals could result in the court receiving case-specific information or information that might be considered inadmissible or prejudicial.
- Ensure that all essential stakeholders are represented at task force case coordination meetings to protect the best interests of victim-defendants. For instance, in addition to the prosecutor and victim assistance providers, defense attorneys or child advocates representing potential victims in criminal or juvenile delinquency matters should be included to collaborate on possible victim assistance responses (including diversion or treatment interventions).
For additional information and tools, visit the Resource page for Section 6.3 Trauma-Informed Courts.