In a ruling cheered by the New England First Amendment Coalition and other public access groups, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ordered the opening of a shielded document related to rape and drug charges against a real estate developer.
“The Commonwealth v. Prescott decision is a significant victory for the public’s right to know,” said Rosanna Cavanagh, NEFAC’s executive director.
“As the SJC pointed out aptly, “[I]t is of the highest moment that those who administer justice should always act under the sense of public responsibility, and that every citizen should be able to satisfy himself with his own eyes as to the mode in which a public duty is performed.”
The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Mass., intervened in the case against William O’Connell, who is charged with two counts of aggravated statutory rape and one count of cocaine trafficking. NEFAC, the Massachusetts Newspaper Association, the New England Newspaper and Press Association and the Citizen Media Law Project joined in anamicus brief backing the newspaper.
The Patriot Ledger sought an impounded affidavit filed in support of a March 2011 State Police search of O’Connell’s condominium in Quincy. The affidavit includes statements made by a girl about sexual encounters she allegedly had with O’Connell when she was 14.
O’Connell’s lawyers contended the affidavit’s contents were protected by a state records law that prohibits the release of information given to police about rape and sexual assaults. They also argued release of the information would jeopardize O’Connell’s ability to receive a fair trial.
But in Thursday’s decision, Justice Fernande R.V. Duffly, said the legislature, when it adopted the statue, “appeared to be concerned with aspects of the internal proceedings and records of police departments. The act makes no reference to court documents, nor does it otherwise support an inference that the Legislature intended the mandate of confidentiality . . . to reach beyond reports in the possession of police departments.”
Duffly concluded that the statute “has no bearing on the public’s access to search warrant affidavits that have been filed in court.”
Cavanagh underlined the practical significance of such decisions. “Access to search warrants is a critical means of safeguarding our freedom from otherwise unbridled police powers.”
The parties have 30 days to request a rehearing before the document, with the girl’s name redacted, is made public.