The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that a criminal defendant does not have the right to view the alleged victim’s criminal record that had previously been sealed by a judge. The name of the case is Wing v. Commissioner of Probation.
Following an incident in which the defendant allegedly caused a security gate on his property to crash into the complainant’s vehicle, the defendant was charged with malicious destruction of property over $250. Once the case was in court, the defendant filed a motion to be provided with a copy of the complainant’s criminal record. This is a standard motion that is filed in every case. The probation department provided a copy of the complainant’s criminal record that disclosed unsealed crimes with which the complainant had been charged. However, the probation department refused to disclose crimes with which the complainant had been charged but which were subsequently sealed by a judge. The defendant filed a motion to compel the probation department to disclose the sealed entries on the complainant’s criminal record, but the judge sided with the probation department. The defendant appealed.
The Supreme Judicial Court began its analysis by noting there may be conflict between a defendant’s right to obtain a witness’ criminal record and the witness’ right to have his previously-sealed criminal record remain private. Pursuant to the Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure, a judge is required to order the probation department to produce the criminal records of all witnesses in a criminal case. However, the Court pointed out that the Rules of Criminal Procedure do not address whether a witness’ sealed criminal record is similarly required to be disclosed. In fact, a different statute related to the sealing of criminal records unambiguously states that a sealed record may not be used in any way in any court proceedings. The sealing statute is intended to protect the privacy rights of individuals who had been previously charged with crimes but had their records sealed by a judge.
The Court ultimately determined that the Legislature intended for sealed records to remain private even when the individual who had his record sealed is a witness in an unrelated criminal case. The Court reasoned that the criminal procedure rule that requires disclosure of records is a general discovery rule that did not address sealed records, while the sealing statute specifically forbade the disclosure for use in any court case. Further, because the sealing statute was enacted after the Rules of Criminal Procedure, the sealing statute should govern because the Legislature presumably was aware of the Rules of Criminal Procedure when enacting the sealing statute.
This ruling has the potential to have far reaching consequences for criminal defendants. The sealing statute was enacted just a few years ago, and judges are sealing former defendants’ records every day across the Commonwealth. If those former defendants become witnesses (including alleged victims) in later criminal cases, the defendants in those cases are no longer permitted to discover those portions of the witnesses’ records that were sealed. This is a big deal, because witnesses’ criminal records are important tools that can be used to impeach the witnesses in front of juries. One potential avenue of defense for all criminal defendants has been weakened by the SJC’s decision today.