Attorney Gen. v. Dist. Attorney for the Plymouth Dist.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Citation141 N.E.3d 429,484 Mass. 260
Docket NumberSJC-12722
Decision Date12 March 2020

484 Mass. 260
141 N.E.3d 429



Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk..

Argued November 5, 2019
Decided March 12, 2020

Thomas R. Kiley, Special Assistant Attorney General (Meredith G. Fierro, Boston, also present) for the defendants.

Carrie Benedon, Assistant Attorney General, for the plaintiff.

Rebecca Jacobstein, Committee for Public Counsel Services, & Lindsay M.K. Custer, for Committee for Public Counsel Services, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Gaziano, Lowy, & Budd, JJ.


A reporter for Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC (Globe), made a public records request pursuant to G. L. c. 66, § 10 (public records law) to each of the offices of the Commonwealth's eleven district attorneys and to the office of the Attorney General for information stored in an internal electronic case database maintained by each of these offices (database). Specifically, the Globe sought data tables containing the following twenty-three categories of information for each criminal case tracked by the district attorneys and the Attorney General in their databases:

"[1] Case ID Number ...; [2] Offense Date; [3] Case filing Date; [4] Docket number; [5] Court name where the case was handled; [6] Criminal count number; [7] Charge/crime Code ...; [8] Charge/crime Description ...; [9] Charge/crime Type ...; [10] Department that filed the charge; [11] Way charge was initiated (Ex: grand jury indictment, filed by police ... etc.); [12] Defendant ID Num (Internal tracking number used by DA's office to identify defendant); [13] Defendant Race/Ethnicity; [14] Defendant Gender; [15] Judge's Name who handled disposition; [16] Disposition Date; [17] Disposition Code; [18] Disposition Description; [19] Disposition Type; [20] Disposition/sentence[ ] recommended by prosecutor for each charge; [21] Sentence Type; [22] Sentence Description; [23] Case status."

All of the offices complied with the request except for those of the district attorneys for the Plymouth District, the Middle District, and the Cape and Islands District (the district attorneys). The Globe appealed to the supervisor of records (supervisor) to determine whether the requested information sought from the databases are public records that must be disclosed under the public records law. The supervisor determined that the information constitutes public records and ordered the district attorneys to produce the requested data. The district attorneys declined to do so, and the supervisor referred the matter to the Attorney General, who commenced an action seeking a declaration that the requested data are public records. A Superior Court judge allowed the Attorney General's motion for summary judgment and entered a judgment declaring that the Globe's request seeks public records that must be disclosed. We granted the district

141 N.E.3d 432

attorneys' motion for direct appellate review.

On appeal, the district attorneys argue that we should reverse the declaratory judgment for two reasons: first, that under G. L. c. 4, § 7, Twenty-sixth (a ), these records are "specifically or by necessary implication exempted from disclosure" under the Criminal Offender Record Information Act, G. L. c. 6, §§ 167 - 178B (the CORI act); and second, that the Globe's request requires them not merely to disclose existing records but to create a computer program to extract the data and create a new report, which exceeds what is required under the public records law.

We conclude that the data sought by the Globe from the district attorneys would be "specifically or by necessary implication exempted from disclosure" under the CORI act if the individuals whose cases were tracked by this data could be directly or indirectly identified, because a criminal history of these individuals could then be compiled from this data that may be more extensive than what members of the public are permitted to obtain under the CORI act. We also conclude that if the court case docket number (docket number) for each case were segregated and redacted from the remaining categories of information, these individuals could not be directly or indirectly identified from this data. We also conclude that a request such as this, which requires the extraction of categories of information from an existing database, does not impose burdens on public record holders that exceed what is required under the public records law. We therefore affirm the judgment only in part and declare that the district attorneys must disclose to the Globe twenty-two of the twenty-three categories of information requested, excising from the disclosure the docket number for each case requested.2

Statutory background. This case requires us to attempt to harmonize the language and legislative purpose of two statutes: the public records law, G. L. c. 66, § 10, and the CORI act, G. L. c. 6, §§ 167 - 178B.

1. The public records law. The public records law, G. L. c. 66, § 10, governs the public's right to access records and information held by State governmental entities. Under the public records law, anyone has the right to access or inspect "public records" upon request. G. L. c. 66, § 10 (a ). "The primary purpose of the [public records law] is to give the public broad access to governmental records." Worcester Tel. & Gazette Corp. v. Chief of Police of Worcester, 436 Mass. 378, 382-383, 764 N.E.2d 847 (2002). In enacting the public records law, the Legislature recognized that "[t]he public has an interest in knowing whether public servants are carrying out their duties in an efficient and law-abiding manner," Attorney Gen. v. Collector of Lynn, 377 Mass. 151, 158, 385 N.E.2d 505 (1979), and that "greater access to information about the actions of public officers and institutions is increasingly ... an essential ingredient of public confidence in government," New Bedford Standard-Times Publ. Co. v. Clerk of the Third Dist. Ct. of Bristol, 377 Mass. 404, 417, 387 N.E.2d 110 (1979) (Abrams, J., concurring).

"Public records" are broadly defined as "all books, papers, maps, photographs, recorded tapes, financial statements, statistical tabulations, or other documentary materials or data, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made

141 N.E.3d 433

or received by any officer or employee" of any Massachusetts governmental entity. G. L. c. 4, § 7, Twenty-sixth. But "[n]ot every record or document kept or made by [a] governmental agency is a ‘public record.’ " Suffolk Constr. Co. v. Division of Capital Asset Mgt., 449 Mass. 444, 454, 870 N.E.2d 33 (2007). The Legislature has identified twenty categories of records that fall outside the definition of "public records" and are consequently exempt from disclosure under the public records law. G. L. c. 4, § 7, Twenty-sixth (a )-(u ). Here, only one exemption has been claimed by the district attorneys: G. L. c. 4, § 7, Twenty-sixth (a ) (exemption [a] ) excludes records from disclosure where they are "specifically or by necessary implication exempted from disclosure by statute."

A public record holder may invoke exemption (a ) as the basis for withholding requested records where another statute -- the "exempting statute" -- expressly prohibits disclosure. See, e.g., Ottaway Newspapers, Inc. v. Appeals Court, 372 Mass. 539, 544 n.5, 362 N.E.2d 1189 (1977), citing G. L. c. 167, § 2 (copies of bank examination reports "shall be furnished to such bank for its use only and shall not be exhibited to any other person ... without the prior written approval of the commissioner"); G. L. c. 111B, § 11 (alcohol treatment records "shall be confidential"); G. L. c. 41, § 97D (all reports of rape or sexual assault "shall not be public reports"). Alternatively, a record may be withheld where the exempting statute protects the record from disclosure by "necessary implication," such as where the exempting statute prohibits disclosure as a practical matter. See, e.g., Champa v. Weston Pub. Schs., 473 Mass. 86, 91 n.8, 39 N.E.3d 435 (2015) (Federal statute "does not expressly prohibit disclosure of ‘education records,’ but it does condition receipt of Federal funds on the nondisclosure of education records").

Under the public records act, "a presumption shall exist that each record sought is public and the burden shall be on the defendant agency or municipality to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that such record or portion of the record may be withheld in accordance with state or federal law." G. L. c. 66, § 10A (d ) (1) (iv). Therefore, the burden rests with the district attorneys to prove that the CORI act specifically or by necessary implication exempts the requested records from disclosure.

2. The CORI act. First enacted in 1972, the CORI act centralized the collection and dissemination of criminal record information in the Commonwealth. St. 1972, c. 805. See New Bedford Standard-Times Publ. Co., 377 Mass. at 413, 387 N.E.2d 110. It created a unified management system for all criminal record information, allowing, for the first time, the compilation of a comprehensive State criminal history for each offender (CORI report). St. 1972, c. 805, § 1. It also strictly limited dissemination of those State-compiled criminal histories to criminal justice agencies and other entities specifically granted access...

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