Supreme Judicial Court, August 15, 2014

The Court in this case announced that a new substantive standard is necessary to achieve the legislative purpose of discretionary sealing and modified the procedure currently in place for reviewing petitions for sealing.

Standard:

Under G. L. c. 276, § 100C, second par., inserted by St. 1973, c. 322, § 1, a former criminal defendant whose case resulted in the entry of a nolle prosequi or a dismissal may obtain discretionary sealing of his or her criminal record where a judge determines that "substantial justice would best be served" by sealing.   The previous standard required the defendant prove "that the value of sealing . . . clearly outweighs the constitutionally-based value of the record remaining open to society."   In light of the 2010 CORI reforms, the Court found that there should be a more lenient standard, ruling that “substantial justice [will] best be served" by sealing to mean that the defendant must establish that good cause exists for sealing.

In assessing whether the defendant has established good cause for sealing his or her record, judges must balance the interests between the common-law presumption of access and the privacy interests at stake.   After balancing those interests, if the judge determines that the defendant has shown good cause, the substantial justice standard will be satisfied.

Judges may consider any relevant information when conducting the balancing test; however, the Court noted that at a minimum the following should be evaluated:

  • the particular disadvantages identified by the defendant arising from the availability of the criminal record;
  • evidence of rehabilitation suggesting that the defendant could overcome these disadvantages if the record were sealed;
  • any other evidence that sealing would alleviate the identified disadvantages;
  • relevant circumstances of the defendant at the time of the offense that suggest a likelihood of recidivism or of success;
  • the passage of time since the offense and since the dismissal or nolle prosequi; and
  • the nature of and reasons for the particular disposition.

Hearing Process:

In addition, the Court did away with the two-step hearing process required when a defendant files a petition for sealing under G. L. c. 276, § 100C.  Now, where a defendant files a petition and accompanying documents setting forth facts that demonstrate good cause for overriding the presumption of public access to court records, a judge may determine on the pleadings whether a prima facie showing has been made.  If such a showing is made, the petition should proceed to a hearing on the merits.  Notice of the hearing must be provided to the public and other interested parties.  After hearing the arguments and balancing the interests at stake, if the judge is satisfied that good cause merits sealing, the judge must make "specific findings on the record setting forth the interests considered by the judge and the reasons for the order directing that such sealing occur."