S.J.C. Broadens Automatic Sealing of Criminal Records, As B.B.A. Had Urged
The Boston Bar Association (BBA) hailed Friday’s decision by the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) adopting the BBA’s position that state law mandates automatic sealing of criminal records for charges if a defendant is found not guilty, a grand jury declines to indict, or a judge finds no probable cause. The BBA submitted an amicus letter in the case, Commonwealth v. J.F., making that argument — as did amici Community Legal Aid and Upturn, in separate filings.
J.F. follows several cases, in state and federal courts, that produced conflicting rulings. Here, the SJC held that sealing is mandatory in light of the statutory text because the public has no presumptive right of access, pointing to a previous decision in which it had similarly rejected such First Amendment claims as to a different sub-section of the same state statute.
In a letter drafted by Ryan Rosenblatt of Sullivan & Worcester LLP, the BBA noted that individuals with criminal charges “often face heightened barriers to adequate housing, employment, and other benefits that would enable them to participate fully in society. … Sealing is a central means for alleviating the adverse consequences that former defendants face.”
The Court’s unanimous opinion, by Justice Elspeth Cypher, cited “the compelling governmental interests in reducing recidivism, facilitating reintegration, and ensuring self-sufficiency by promoting employment and housing opportunities for former criminal defendants,” and found that “[a]lthough court records historically have been [publicly] accessible [some] records should not be available for public review.” Further, “the records of closed cases that resulted in an acquittal after trial, a finding of no probable cause, or a no bill from the grand jury … have not been open historically to the press and public.”
“The BBA has long stood for broader sealing access, both to support people with criminal court involvement in moving on with their lives and to enhance public safety,” said President Chinh Pham of Greenberg Traurig LLP. “This is especially important where a defendant has been cleared of charges.”
The BBA, in partnership with Greater Boston Legal Services (which filed an amicus brief in the case as well), operates a clinic staffed by volunteer attorneys who provide assistance to people who may be eligible for sealing of their records. Our letter arguing for such a ruling stated that it “would provide an enormous benefit to the BBA’s clinic clients that, like the Appellant here, were acquitted of charges at trial yet suffer the stigma of a criminal record rather than receive the benefit of automatic sealing as should be required.”
The SJC remanded the case to the lower court for further consistent findings, and to allow the Appellant to decide whether to exercise his statutory right not to seal records related to any of the charges for which he was acquitted.
“Amicus Curiae” means, literally, “friend of the court.” Since 1975, the BBA has filed amicus briefs on matters related to the practice of law or the administration of justice. The 2022-2023 BBA Amicus Committee is co-chaired by David Zimmer of Goodwin Procter LLP and Christina Miller of Suffolk University Law School.