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Bill seals police reports in domestic violence cases

Police reports in domestic violence cases will be off-limits to the public under a little-noticed measure sent to the governor’s desk early Friday.

The passage of the bill, which will also protect the identity of alleged domestic abusers and their victims until a case lands in court, set up an uncomfortable clash between victims’ groups and First Amendment advocates intent on protecting the public’s right to know.

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Advocates for the abused, who support the legislation even as they acknowledge critics’ concerns, argue the prospect of news media coverage can dissuade victims from reporting domestic violence.

But free speech groups say the measure will shield abusers, and the police who investigate them, from scrutiny. The bill, they add, will deprive residents of important information about key players in their communities.

“If a teacher, if a coach, if a guidance counselor — any number of public officials — is arrested under these circumstances, that’s something the public has a right to know,” said Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, an industry group that represents newspapers across the state, including The Boston Globe.

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The measure was tucked into a larger domestic violence bill, crafted in response to the high-profile case of Jared Remy, who had a long history of abuse before he killed his girlfriend, Jennifer Martel.

The legislation toughens penalties for repeat offenders, creates new strictures against strangulation and suffocation, and gives victims 15 days off from work to recover or seek medical attention and counseling.

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Those measures got top billing in legislators’ speeches Thursday night, while the provision to rein in public information on domestic violence cases was barely mentioned.

That provision bounced around the State House for years before landing in the legislation that was passed.

Its roots are in the July 2006 arrest of former New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson and his wife Jacqueline, on charges of assault and battery, at their Weston home.

The case triggered heavy press coverage. And Weston Police Chief Steven Shaw said two women declined to pursue domestic violence charges in its aftermath, fearful of attracting public attention.

Shaw said he approached Representative Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat, seeking a fix. And he said Thursday that he was pleased Peisch’s legislation passed.

“My concern is that we’ve taken steps, over the last 10, 15 years, to get people that are being abused to call us and the way it is now, you can end up in the paper,” he said. “People are worried about their image.”

Shaw said the legislation could have kept the names of alleged abusers open to public scrutiny while protecting victims’ identities. But that would not have gone far enough, he argued. If an alleged perpetrator is identified, he said, “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots.”

The measure, which goes into effect immediately if signed by the governor, requires law enforcement to keep domestic violence cases off the public police logs that reporters often plumb for stories. But once a suspect is arraigned — a process often completed just days after an arrest — the name of an accused abuser will become public.

Asked if the brief delay in public notice would provide adequate incentive for a nervous victim to call police, Peisch argued that it could.

Authorities do not always pursue criminal charges in domestic disturbances, she noted. And those cases would remain out of the public eye altogether — wiped from the public police logs and free from any court proceeding.

Jeffrey Pyle, a Boston lawyer who specializes in media law and has done work for the Globe, said it is not clear that a domestic violence victim would give much thought to the intricacies of public records law before calling police. And the measure, he said, leaves room for politicians, police officers, and other officials to avoid any public record of law enforcement visits to their homes.

“Problems with the criminal justice system are rarely, if ever, solved by decreasing transparency,” Pyle said.

State law has long sealed police reports in cases of attempted rape, rape, attempted sexual assault, and sexual assault. The new measure adds domestic violence to the list.

Toni Troop, a spokeswoman for Jane Doe Inc., a statewide coalition that advocates for the rights of domestic abuse and rape victims, said she understands free speech advocates’ concerns and would be willing to work with media organizations and legislators to revise the legislation.

But she said her organization supports the thrust of the measure: “What we’re hearing from victims over and over again is that the thought of their name and the name of the batterer out there so everyone will know it’s them is going to dissuade them from calling law enforcement the next time.”

Critics, though, say public scrutiny of an abuser can be useful. Greater attention to Remy’s history of assaults, which was available in the public record, might have allowed for an intervention before he killed Martel, they argue.

Kristina Flickinger Hill, who witnessed Remy beat and stab her friend to death, said she is torn between a victim’s need for privacy and the public’s right to know.

But in the aftermath of the murder, she said, neighbors were stunned that they did not know Remy’s lengthy history of assaults.

“I think it’s important that people know who the perpetrator is, particularly in a case like Jared’s where he had multiple incidents,” she said. The murder took place at her apartment complex, which forbade people with criminal records.

“We couldn’t understand how we were allowed to be put in jeopardy,” she said. “I would want to know what was going on. I think that people have a right to know what’s going on in their neighborhoods or their backyards.”

Peisch said that, even under the new legislation, there would be a trail of public records for abusers such as Remy — abusers who not only got visits from police, but actually wound up in court.

Maria Cramer of the Globe staff contributed to this report. David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg
@globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.
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