Thursday, August 23, 2012

Search Warrant Affidavit Open to Public, SJC Rules

In a victory for the news media, the Supreme Judicial Court today sided with the Quincy Patriot Ledger and ruled that the affidavit filed by police in support of a search warrant should be open to the public.

The case involved a State Police investigation into allegations that a prominent Quincy real estate developer, William O’Connell, had engaged in unlawful sexual relations with a minor. Shortly after police executed the warrant, a Quincy District Court judge impounded the affidavit.

The Patriot Ledger intervened in the criminal case to seek access to the impounded affidavit. Ruling that the document was presumptively public, the District Court judge lifted the impoundment order. Prosecutors and O’Connell both appealed.

In its decision today, the SJC noted that there is a longstanding presumption in favor of public access to search warrants and supporting materials. While a judge may restrict access for good cause, impoundment should be used only in limited and specific circumstances, the SJC said.

Here, the SJC rejected O’Connell’s argument that release of the affidavit would prejudice his right to a fair trial. “By engaging in the proper balancing of interests, and utilizing the procedural tools available in criminal proceedings, judges are well equipped to safeguard a defendant's right to a fair trial,” the court said.

The SJC also ruled for the first time on the applicability of a state law that makes reports to police of rapes or sexual assaults private. General Laws c. 41, § 97D, provides: "All reports of rape and sexual assault or attempts to commit such offenses and all conversations between police officers and victims of said offenses shall not be public reports and shall be maintained by the police departments in a manner which will assure their confidentiality."

Prosecutors and O’Connell argued that this statute applied not only to police records, but also to court records, including search warrant affidavits. The SJC concluded otherwise, it does not by its terms preclude publication in court of police reports or the content of a victim's conversations with police regarding an alleged rape or sexual assault.

The case is Commonwealth v. George W. Prescott Publishing Co., LLC.

The Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, for which I serve as executive director, filed an amicus brief in support of the Patriot Ledger, together with the New England Newspaper and Press Association, the Citizen Media Law Project and the New England First Amendment Coalition. 

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