The Interplay Between the Duty to Maintain Client Confidences and Courthouse Security

The Interplay Between the Duty to Maintain Client Confidences and Courthouse Security

A man attempted to rape a county employee inside of a courthouse bathroom. A criminal defendant who was scheduled to appear in court to enter a guilty plea on drug and weapon charges started a gun battle with sheriff’s deputies outside of the courthouse. A person who was upset over the possibility of having his parental rights terminated shot and killed a state employee who was the main witness in the termination case. This incident also happened just outside of the courthouse.

Stories such as these are not one-offs. They are shared to underscore the reality that courthouse security throughout the US is more than a hypothetical concern. Now, suppose the lawyers who represented these individuals were aware that their clients may be a threat to someone. Would they have an ethical obligation to disclose what they know, or must they remain quiet? If disclosure is necessary, to whom do they disclose?

To answer these questions, we need to turn to the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC). Consider MRPC 1.6(b)(1) from which we learn that a lawyer may, but is not obligated to, reveal information relating to the representation of a client if the lawyer reasonably believes doing so is necessary to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm. And be aware that when adopting this rule, some states went a bit further and altered the language found in MRPC 1.6(b)(1) in various ways in order to make disclosure mandatory. Regardless, the interesting question is this. What does the term “reasonably believes” mean in this context?

The general consensus seems to be that if a lawyer is thinking about making a permissive or mandatory disclosure under this rule, there needs to be something more than a generalized discomfort about the client. A feeling that the client might do something because the client is prone to violence or experiencing an unease over a possibility that violence might eventually erupt isn’t enough. The lawyer’s concern must be specific and, if not imminent, reasonably certain to come to pass in the future if action isn’t taken to prevent it. Stated another way, a disclosure can’t be based upon a speculation about what a client might do.

One could also argue that MRPC 3.3(b) would be in play, at least in some circumstances, because this rule requires a lawyer to disclose information that is otherwise protected by MRPC 1.6 if the lawyer knows that a person intends to engage in criminal conduct related to an adjudicative proceeding and any effort to dissuade the client from doing so has failed. I suspect most of us think of this obligation more in the context of preventing false evidence from being offered to the court, but there is no language in the rule or the associated commentary that would so limit its application. A criminal defendant’s intent to shoot a key witness is unquestionably criminal conduct related to an adjudicative proceeding as I see it. Also note that while MRPC 3.3(b) is limited to adjudicative proceedings, MRPC 1.6(b)(1) is not.

If a lawyer eventually reaches the point of having a reasonable belief that a disclosure is necessary to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm, should the lawyer inform the client in advance of making any permissive or required disclosure? If time permits and an opportunity presents itself, a lawyer should strongly consider doing so. Not only would this be the judicious thing to do, but an argument could be made that MRPC 1.4 Communication and MRPC 3.3(b) might make it mandatory. Think about a lawyer’s duties to keep a client reasonably informed and allowing a client to make informed decisions under Rule 1.4 coupled with the duty to take reasonable remedial measures under Rule 3.3(b). After all, there’s a possibility the client could be talked down from the ledge, so to speak.

Thus, and again only if there is time and an opportunity, a lawyer should consider sharing with the client the specific concern which has necessitated a decision to disclose if the client is unwilling to change course and thereby alleviate the concern. In addition, the ramifications of the decision to disclose, meaning that withdrawal from representation may need to occur, should be shared as well. The reason is that disclosure is going to negatively impact the attorney-client relationship, if not result in the client firing the lawyer. This outcome has consequences. Of course, if the client has already put a plan in motion and/or the lawyer has a legitimate concern about his or her own personal safety if the client were to be told, there would be no time or opportunity to have this conversation.

Once a decision to disclose is made, what can be disclosed and to whom should it be made? From the commentary to MRPC 1.6 we learn that when disclosure becomes necessary, the information that can be shared should be limited to only what is necessary to enable the affected persons and/or the appropriate authorities to prevent the client from successfully committing the crime. Stop there because it’s important to recognize that the fallout to the client needs to be minimized as much as possible. For example, steps should be taken to prevent opposing counsel from having an opportunity to, if you will, weaponize the disclosure.

A decision as to whether to disclose is often going to be a difficult one to make. For example, who’s to say a client won’t change his mind and reasonable minds can disagree as to whether any given set of circumstances would necessitate a permissive or mandatory disclosure. Here’s the rub, however. There are always going to be clients out there who are bad people who will do bad things. That’s just the way it is. Should you ever find yourself representing one of these folks, don’t minimize the risk they might truly represent. There may come a time where an ability to keep your local courthouse and associated grounds secure depends upon it.

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Since 1998, Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. has been a Risk Manager with ALPS, an attorney’s professional liability insurance carrier. In his tenure with the company, Mr. Bassingthwaighte has conducted over 1200 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented over 550 continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management, ethics, and technology. Mr. Bassingthwaighte is a member of the State Bar of Montana as well as the American Bar Association where he currently sits on the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility’s Conference Planning Committee. He received his J.D. from Drake University Law School.