Wood County Magistrate Joyce Purkey found herself in a unique situation recently when it was brought to her attention she was a Facebook friend with a Vienna police officer involved in a case before the magistrate court.
To avoid any appearance of impropriety, Purkey recused herself from hearing the case of Vienna vs. James Paul Weigle. A hearing on the case is scheduled for Aug. 15, which will be heard by Magistrate Robin Waters.
In 2010, Vienna police Sgt. R.L. Pifer arrested Weigle after a traffic incident in April 2010. Purkey asked Wood County Circuit Court Judge and magistrate court supervisor J.D. Beane to recuse her from the case after she was informed she and Pifer are friends on the popular Internet social networking site.
According to West Virginia Supreme Court Public Information Officer Jennifer Bundy, it is the first time a court official has asked to be recused from hearing a case because of Facebook.
Purkey did the right thing by stepping back from the case. However, this incident offers more questions than answers. Many people who are "friends" with others on Facebook are not necessarily friends in the common use of the word. However, that doesn't mean the word "friend" couldn't be used by a defense attorney at a trial, especially if the "friends" are the judge and an officer of the law or court.
It is not surprising this has become an issue. It is somewhat surprising it hasn't been one until now. One obvious solution would be for officers of the court to not become "friends" with others in law enforcement, at least until there can be a determination on this issue.
It would not seem that Facebook "friends" would be considered as a conflict of interest for any court official. Nevertheless, Purkey was right in her action. Better to not hear a case than to give someone who may be found guilty any kind of issue to appeal.