The Boston Globe sued the police departments in Boston and North Andover as well as several state agencies on Tuesday to obtain copies of police reports, mug shots, and prison booking logs, arguing the records must be made public under the state’s open records law.
The paper filed the lawsuit after state and local police withheld photos and reports of more than a half-dozen law enforcement officers who were charged with drunken driving and a judge who was accused of stealing a watch at Logan Airport. Boston police wouldn’t even name the police officers who were arrested.
“This case raises important issues involving the public’s right to know and transparency in government,” said Mark Hileman, the Globe’s general counsel. “The Globe brought this suit because we believe the [Criminal Offender Record Information] Act is being applied to block public access to law enforcement records in ways never intended by the Legislature.”
A Boston police spokesman said the department would review the complaint once it is formally served. A state spokesman declined to comment. North Andover police could not immediately be reached.
All of the agencies said the records were not public because of the criminal records law, often referred to as CORI and frequently invoked by law enforcement agencies to deny public records requests. The secretary of state’s office — which oversees enforcement of the public records law — supported the denials, explaining that the law gives law enforcement agencies broad “discretion” over what records to withhold and what to release.
But the decisions sparked an outcry from media organizations, open government groups, and civil rights advocates across the state who feared the rulings could give government agencies the power to cover up wrongdoing by their own departments while continuing to release information about ordinary citizens who are charged with breaking the law. The Globe, Herald, and GateHouse Media newspapers all ran coordinated editorials condemning the rulings. And open government advocates noted arrest records are public in almost every other state.
The lawsuit comes at a time when watchdogs have raised growing concerns about the difficulty in obtaining government records in Massachusetts. Agencies routinely deny requests, black out key information from documents, demand thousands of dollars in fees, or simply refuse to respond to requests at all. Many areas of government, including the courts and Legislature, are exempt from the law altogether.
The CORI law was passed in 1972 to create a centralized state database of criminal records for law enforcement agencies and included restrictions on who could access the data.
But over the years, many agencies have interpreted the law to also apply to other types of records, including mug shots, arrest reports, and booking logs that aren’t maintained in the state’s CORI database. And the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services, which administers the CORI law, says it’s up to individual law enforcement agencies to decide how and when to release those records.
However, the Globe suit argues that the CORI law was never intended to apply to records that didn’t come from the state’s centralized database.
Even if CORI did extend to records kept outside of the database, the lawsuit argues the law still wouldn’t allow officials to block the release of mug shots or police reports because CORI only covers documents created “as the result of the initiation of criminal proceedings” or subsequent proceedings.
The Globe argues that criminal proceedings begin when a court issues a formal criminal complaint — which typically comes after an arrest report and mug shot are taken. But regulations issued by the state Department of Criminal Justice Information Services say criminal proceedings begin much earlier — when an officer makes an arrest or otherwise “takes actions toward bringing a specific suspect to court.” The secretary of state’s office cited the regulations to justify the denials.
The Globe also sued the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services, saying it has no authority to issue regulations overriding the actual language and intent of the CORI law.
“The regulations conflict with the plain language of the CORI Act,” the lawsuit says.
In addition, the Globe sued the Department of Correction, which runs the state prison systems, for refusing to release its chronological booking log showing who was admitted into the state prison system.
The Globe argued that CORI cannot be used to withhold prison booking logs because the law says anyone should be able to find out the status of someone in prison or on probation from the state.
The lawsuit is the fifth public records suit the Globe has filed in Massachusetts since the beginning of last year. The state Board of Registration in Medicine quickly agreed to reverse redactions after the Globe sued. But other lawsuits against the MBTA retirement trust, the City of Boston, and the state Department of Public Health are still pending — including one case filed more than a year ago — underscoring the difficulty of obtaining records quickly even when citizens and organizations are willing to go to court.
Unlike in some other states, public records suits in Massachusetts are not heard on an expedited basis even though media organizations argue that records often must be obtained in a timely basis to have any relevance. And Massachusetts is one of just four states where citizens cannot recoup their legal fees even if they are successful in court, something that has discouraged many other organizations from filing suit at all.Todd Wallack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.