Supreme Judicial Court, August 23, 2012 

G.L. c. 41, § 97D does not apply to search warrant affidavits. 

The State Police were investigating allegations that William O’Connell (the second petitioner in the case) engaged in sexual intercourse with a minor. On March 31, 2011, a State Trooper obtained a warrant to search O’Connell’s home in Quincy. The affidavit in support of the warrant application included the minor complainant’s name, other identifying information and the statements made to the police about the alleged criminal conduct. On April 5, 2011, after the search warrant was executed and the warrant returned, the Court allowed the Commonwealth’s motion to impound the affidavit and the materials filed in connection with the search warrant.

On April 27, 2011, the defendant in this case, George W. Prescott Publishing Company, LLC (Prescott) (publisher of the Patriot Ledger newspaper) filed a civil complaint against the Clerk-Magistrate of the Quincy District Court to terminate the impoundment order. Two days later, a criminal complaint charged the defendant with aggravated statutory rape, engaging in sexual conduct for a fee and trafficking in cocaine. The Commonwealth filed a motion to impound the criminal complaint and related document, which was allowed. Prescott intervened on the criminal case for the purpose of challenging the impoundment order and the court dismissed the civil case.

After several hearings, a District Court judge ruled that G.L. c. 41, § 97D did not bar disclosure and that the Commonwealth and O’Connell failed to show “good cause” for the continued impoundment. The judge stayed the order and the petitioners filed a G.L. c. 211 § 3 in the county court. Following a hearing, the single justice reserved and reported the case to the Supreme Judicial Court. 

In its discussion, the Court acknowledged that “under our common law, judicial records are presumptively available to the public.” Commonwealth v. Silva, 448 Mass. 701, 706-707 (2007). More   specifically, “[m]aterials filed with a court to support the issuance of a search warrant not only shed light on the functioning of law enforcement agencies, but also provide a means of understanding the court's decision to issue a warrant. Thus, we have repeatedly recognized that, when filed in court, search warrant materials are judicial records to which the public's presumptive right of access applies once the warrant has been returned.” However, the public’s right to view search warrant materials is not unlimited and judges may impound judicial records when “good cause” is shown. 

G.L. c. 41, § 97D

The petitioners in this case argued that G.L. c. 41, § 97D applies not only to police reports, but also to court records concerning rapes or sexual assaults, and therefore the search warrant affidavit and  accompanying materials should remain impounded. The relevant portion of G.L. c. 41, § 97D states:

"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."

The Court looked to the language of the statute, to the common law that allows for public access to judicial records, the general principle that blanket prohibitions on public access to court records should be avoided, and the context in which the statute was enacted, and refused to extend G.L. c. 41, § 97D to search warrant affidavits or other judicial records.

Good Cause

Next, the petitioners argued that even if G.L. c. 41, § 97D does not apply, good cause was shown to continue to the impoundment. The Court reviewed the District Court judge’s decision for “abuse of discretion or other error in the law” and found none based on the reasons cited in the decision.

The case was remanded to the county court. The single justice was directed “to vacate the order staying the release of the redacted affidavit and affirm the District Court judge’s order vacating the order of impoundment and releasing a redacted version of the affidavit.”