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Monday, October 25, 2021

Incarcerated persons have access to information in Massachusetts law, court confirms, but not in all states

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A man imprisoned for murder has a right of access to public records no less than anyone else, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held in the summer.

Nine years ago, Adam Bradley was co-perpetrator of a home invasion in Billerica, Massachusetts, northwest of Boston, in which 22-year-old resident Quintin Koehler was shot and killed.  The crime was tied to the Bloods gang, according to The Boston Globe.  In 2017, at age 32, Bradley was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to a life term.

Lately, Bradley has used the Massachusetts Public Records Law (PRL, or FOIA) to investigate his conviction by requesting police records.  He alleged in a lawsuit that the State Police records access officer (RAO) failed to respond to multiple PRL requests.

In court, the RAO resisted production under the PRL on two grounds, (1) the ongoing investigation exemption of the PRL and (2) the parallel availability of records to Bradley in criminal discovery.

The Appeals Court soundly rejected both state arguments.  On the first ground, RAO overreached by declaring the entirety of the case file within the investigation exemption.  On the second ground, the PRL operates independently of parallel access in criminal process, the court held.  The RAO anyway owed Bradley a response asserting grounds for non-production.  The state public record supervisor twice ordered the RAO to respond.

The court holding accords with state freedom-of-information norms; the most noteworthy point of the case is that an appeal was required.  As in other states' FOIA exemptions for ongoing investigations, the Massachusetts PRL requires record-by-record review, redaction for partial production when possible, and, if necessary, in camera inspection by the trial court in a legal challenge.

The problem of parallel access is somewhat more vexing, though still should not have confounded the RAO.  Some states expressly exclude active litigants from FOIA uses that might subvert judicial procedure.  But such exclusions, which are far from universal, typically do not bar post-conviction access in criminal matters, even with ongoing appeals.  The RAO in the instant case relied on regulatory language that faintly suggested discovery exclusivity, and the court properly dispelled that theory.

Parallel access questions are thornier when there are state regulatory mechanisms in play that arguably supersede state FOIA as a matter of legislative intent, especially in the area of business regulation.  For example, a statutory framework for state contracting might regulate disclosure and non-disclosure of records maintained by the contractor or submitted to the state, arguably superseding FOIA access.  Even then, the rule of statutory construction that FOIA access is to be construed liberally and FOIA exemptions to be construed narrowly usually makes FOIA a trump card.  Bradley's case presented no such wrinkle.

The case is noteworthy also for a rule that is not at play.  Massachusetts is not one of the states that has limited or simply disallowed FOIA use by prisoners.

The Arkansas Department of Corrections (DOC) lobbied successfully for an amendment to the Arkansas FOIA in 2003 to exclude incarcerated felons from the state definition of "citizen."  Access advocates, including me, managed at that time to negotiate the exclusion down to only DOC records and pro se requests, allowing attorney-representatives to make requests.  Eight years later, the exemption was amended to eliminate the DOC limitation.

It was difficult to advocate for prisoner access.  Incarcerated felons are not a popular constituency and don't vote.  And to be fair to state officials, many dilatory and hardly comprehensible requests emanate from prisons and tie up public resources with no clear public benefit.  At the same time, of course, persons deprived of liberty are susceptible to human rights abuses for which accountability is notoriously elusive.  Michigan public radio in 2016 explored the problem of prisoner civil rights in the absence of access to information in that state's law.

The Massachusetts case is Bradley v. Records Access Officer, No. 20-P-419 (Mass. App. Ct. 2021).  Justice Gregory I. Massing authored the opinion for a unanimous panel also comprising Justices Henry and Ditkoff.  Before appointment to the bench in 2014, Justice Massing served as executive director of the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service, and previously as general counsel for the state's Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

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