It's unethical for prosecutors to lend out letterhead to debt collectors, ABA opinion says
District attorneys should not contract out their letterhead to private debt collection companies, who then use that official letterhead to scare consumers into paying debts. ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 469 (PDF) explains that this practice violates ABA Model Rules against lawyer conduct involving dishonesty or misrepresentation and aiding or assisting others in the unauthorized practice of law.
Prosecutors who engage in these arrangements violate ABA Model Rule 8.4(c), which provides that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.” The opinion explains that prosecutors violate this rule “because they misuse the criminal justice system by deploying the apparent authority of a prosecutor to intimidate an individual.” The conduct involves misrepresentation because it conveys the impression that the prosecutor’s office has reviewed the facts of the individual debtor’s case and has concluded that a crime has been committed.
The ABA’s opinion also determined that the practice violates ABA Model Rule 5.5(a), which provides: “A lawyer shall not practice law in a jurisdiction in violation of the regulation of the legal profession in that jurisdiction, or assist another in doing so.”
The opinion explains that prosecutors who loan out their official letterhead to debt collection companies and allow “the debt collection company to use it to send threatening letters to alleged debtors without any review by the prosecutor or staff lawyers to determine whether a crime was committed and prosecution is warranted, violates Rule 5.5(a) by aiding and abetting the unauthorized practice of law.”