Direct Mail Service v. Registrar of Motor Vehicles

Decision Date04 January 1937
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

November 6, 1936.

Present: RUGG, C.


Registry of Motor Vehicles. Public Record.

The records kept by the registrar of motor vehicles of automobile registrations and licenses are public records, and under G.L. (Ter. Ed.)

c. 66, Section 10; c.

90, Section 30 permission to inspect and copy such records, under reasonable regulations, should not have been refused to a person because he desired to copy all the records in order to carry on the business of selling for profit the information contained in them.

PETITION for a writ of mandamus, filed in the Supreme Judicial Court for the county of Suffolk on January 23, 1936.

The writ was ordered to issue by Pierce, J. The respondents alleged exceptions.

R. Clapp, Assistant Attorney General, for the respondents. Herbert Parker, (J Goldberg with him,) for the petitioner.

QUA, J. After a hearing upon the pleadings and the auditor's report, the single justice has ordered that a writ of mandamus issue commanding the registrar of motor vehicles to permit the petitioner during reasonable business hours to examine and to make copies or transcripts "of all certificates and licenses of motor vehicles" issued by the registrar, and commanding the commissioner of public works to refrain from instructing the registrar to refuse to permit the petitioner to make such examination and such copies or transcripts. The respondents except to the refusal of the single justice to grant certain requests for rulings and to the ruling involved in the making of the order. The question presented is whether upon the facts found by the auditor the petitioner has a right both to examine and to copy, not certain specified portions, but all of the records of certificates of registration and licenses preserved in the registrar's office.

Material findings of the auditor are these: The petitioner is engaged in the business of furnishing to its customers information in regard to registrations issued by the registrar. It cannot carry on this business and will suffer substantial damage unless it can examine and procure copies of the records. Up to the date of the hearing in March, 1936, between six hundred thousand and seven hundred thousand registrations had been recorded in at least sixty bound volumes which the registrar as a general rule permits the public to inspect. Each volume contains ten thousand registrations. Several copies of the same matter are also preserved in other forms to which the public is not allowed access. Additional copies could be multigraphed at the same time, if necessary. The demands of the public to examine the records are not sufficient to create confusion or to prevent any person at any time from securing information with reasonable promptness. Early in December, 1935, the petitioner sent one or two girls in its employ to the public room at the registry with typewriters and paper. They began copying the bound volumes, receiving one volume at a time from the clerk in charge. The copying continued until some time in January when the respondent commissioner instructed the chief clerk that no one would be permitted to copy the entire record, in consequence of which the girls withdrew. The respondents refuse to permit the petitioner to make or cause to be made copies or transcripts of all or substantially all of the records. No confusion or substantial inconvenience to other members of the public or disruption of the orderly conduct of public business or interference with the work of the office resulted from the petitioner's work of copying while it continued, and "no such results should have been reasonably anticipated from a continuance thereof in the same manner." The action of the respondent commissioner "was not due to any confusion or inconvenience experienced or apprehended in the administration of the registrar's office," but was due to the fact that the commissioner had awarded an "official" contract to print the list of registrations to a competitor of the petitioner and to the commissioner's desire to conform to an assurance given to this competitor that the list would not be "released" to any other concern. See Direct-Mail Service, Inc. v. Commissioner of Public Works, 295 Mass. 9.

G.L. (Ter. Ed.) c. 90, Sections 2 and 9, provide for the registration of motor vehicles as a condition precedent to the right to operate them upon the public ways, and Section 30 of the same chapter provides that the records of the registrar "shall be open to the inspection of any person during reasonable business hours." See also G.L. (Ter. Ed.) c. 66, Section 10. The very object of requiring registration of automobiles is to make readily available to the public at all times accurate information as to their ownership and as to the persons responsible for their operation. Koley v. Williams, 265 Mass. 601 , 603. Nash v. Lang, 268 Mass. 407 , 409. There can be no doubt, therefore, that the registrar's records are fully impressed with the character of public records, and that the public generally has with respect to them all the privileges of examination and use which that status affords. G.L. (Ter. Ed.) c. 66, Section 10.

The respondents contend, however, that the statutory right to "inspect" the records is limited by implication to examination as to particular persons or particular automobiles for the protection of some particular right or interest and that it does not extend so far as to permit persons or corporations having no...

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