Appeals Court (March 10, 2006)

A judge has inherent authority to expunge a record of a 209A order from the statewide domestic violence registry system if shown by clear and convincing evidence that the order was obtained through fraud on the court.

The plaintiff and defendant were involved in a romantic relationship which ended when the defendant's violence and threats caused the victim to fear for her life. The plaintiff obtained an emergency abuse prevention order against the defendant. In retaliation, the defendant filed a perjurious complaint for a restraining order, and successfully obtained an order against the plaintiff. The plaintiff later filed a motion to vacate the defendant's order against her. In its decision to vacate the order, the Court found that the defendant's order was obtained through fraud because nineteen of the defendant's sworn allegations against the plaintiff were false.

The Court also granted the plaintiff's additional motion to expunge all records of the order. The Commissioner of Probation intervened and appealed, arguing that the Court had no authority to expunge the record of a 209A order from the system. The Appeals Court disagreed and upheld the order of expungement.

Before a court may invoke its inherent power to expunge a record, it must conduct a balancing test: The government's interest in maintaining the record versus the harm suffered. The Court found the harm suffered by the plaintiff was obvious and substantial where the existence of the order would adversely affect: a) her employment; b) any future 209A proceedings; c) future bail proceedings; and d) her permanent court record. The Court found there was no legitimate purpose in maintaining the records. If anything, the existence of the order would impede the fair administration of justice, since it would provide false information to law enforcement officials. When a fraud on the court has been shown, the judge has inherent power to take action in order to protect the integrity of the courts. "Expunging [the] record not only remedies any harm suffered by [plaintiff], but also sends the appropriate message to the public: [T]he courts will not be used as a vehicle for abusing G.L. c. 209A as a means of harassment through the seeking and obtaining of fraudulent 209A orders."