The Massachusetts Appeals Court today ordered court officials to destroy the records of a man who found himself facing trial for leaving the scene of an accident because a clerk somehow mixed up his records with those of the actual suspect, who has the same name.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2010 and 2012 that court records of people falsely accused of crimes can only be sealed, but not permanently expunged, the Massachusetts Appeals Court said today that this man's treatment due to a clerical error was so egregious, the state law on criminal records doesn't really apply and that it could therefore comply with his request to destroy the records.
In 2012, a guy was charged with leaving the scene of an accident in Suffolk County. A year later, another man, with a different birth date, but the same name was summoned to court for trial on the charges. On learning of the screw up, prosecutors and the judge agreed to throw out the charges against the incorrectly IDed man. But that left the matter of the court papers. The man sought to have the records deleted, but a Suffolk Superior Court judge said he didn't have the authority to order them "expunged" rather than "sealed" - which would leave them in the court system and potentially accessible to various court and probation officials.
The wronged man appealed. In its ruling today, the appeals court said this case was different from the 2010 and 2012 cases in that police and the DA never even intended to prosecute the man - the earlier cases involved people whom law enforcement wanted to put away, even if based on sloppy police work or false testimony.
This case falls into that narrow and exceptional class of cases in which the person originally charged with the crime was not only factually innocent, but was never the intended target of law enforcement. The presence of these factors takes the case outside the scope of the sealing statute because there is no public policy that favors the retention of such spurious records.