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Mass. high court says criminal records must be automatically sealed if people are acquitted

People who have been acquitted of crimes in Massachusetts are entitled to have their records automatically sealed, the state’s highest court has ruled.

“Sealing is mandatory,” the Supreme Judicial Court said in an opinion issued Friday.

The court said it was departing from its earlier guidance and was making it “clear that where a defendant stands acquitted on a charge ...the records pertaining to those charges should be sealed.”

The court cited both the plain language of the state law on sealing such records and the intent of the Legislature, which, the court said, had “intended to balance several interests, including the public’s interest in accessing certain types of records relating to criminal proceedings and a defendant’s interest in sealing the record of his or her criminal history,” in order to gain access to employment, housing, and social contacts.


The unanimous opinion in the Plymouth County case, Commonwealth v. J.F., was written by Justice Elspeth B. Cypher.

Patrick Levin, a lawyer for the Committee for Public Counsel Services who represented a man who appealed to the high court to get his records sealed, said most defendants who have been acquitted have been required to file a motion and get a hearing in front of a judge if they wanted to get their records sealed.

“I think it’s pretty important for people who do get found not-guilty by the jury at trial. They’re not going to have to take it upon themselves, or even be aware that they have to file a motion, if they don’t want the thing on their record,” Levin said.

“It’s going to be a change in practice, I think, in most courts,” he said.

Alyssa Golden, senior supervising attorney of the CORI and reentry unit for Community Legal Aid, which provides civil legal services to low-income and elderly people in Central and Western Massachusetts, said, “We have seen that this is not automatically happening.”


“This decision is a victory for everyone who is working to reduce barriers for folks who have had criminal court involvement,” said Golden, whose team helps formerly incarcerated people with re-entry.

The automatic sealing also applies to people when a grand jury fails to indict them and when a judge has found no probable cause to issue charges. But Levin noted that grand jury records were already secret and it’s rare for judges to hold probable cause hearings in Massachusetts.

The automatic sealing does not apply to cases where prosecutors file a nolle prosequi, a notice that they are not pursuing the case, or a court dismisses charges, the court said. For those people, a hearing to establish “good cause” for the sealing is still necessary.

The high court’s ruling did not address the separate rules for how people who have been convicted of crimes can seal their records.

A spokeswoman for the Plymouth district attorney’s office declined to comment.

Martin Finucane can be reached at