The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled today that State Police can't withhold documents from a man just because he's serving a life sentence without parole for a 2012 murder.
The court said that Adam James Bradley has as much right to request and obtain documents under the state public-records law as anybody else - and that State Police owe him the same consideration as the non-incarcerated, which includes not simply ignoring his requests - or similar followup requests from the Secretary of State's office.
Bradley had asked both for documents related to his case and related to the recent State Police overtime scandal, according to the court's summary of the case.
State Police only responded to the requests from Bradley and the Secretary of State's office after Bradley sued, saying they were refusing to provide any documents in part because "all the records Bradley sought were "investigatory materials" exempt from disclosure under [statutory records defined in the state public-records law]."
Nope, the court said.
This assertion is wrong as a matter of law. "There is no 'blanket exemption' to public disclosure for records kept by police departments or for investigatory materials. . . . Rather, the applicability of an exemption to public disclosure must be determined on a case-by-case basis." Worcester Tel. & Gazette Corp., 436 Mass. at 383-384. See Bougas v. Chief of Police of Lexington, 371 Mass. 59, 65 (1976). While "an exemption [may be] available for a certain carefully defined class of documents, such as police reports . . . , an agency such as a police department cannot simply take the position that, since it is involved in investigatory work and some of its records are exempt under the [public records law], every document in its possession somehow comes to share in that exemption."
The law does list exemptions for records that can be kept secret, but if State Police want to exempt documents, they have to provide specific reasons for each document or group of documents why it needs to be withheld from a requesting person, rather than just saying no to everything without an explanation, the court said.
The court continued that it doesn't matter if some of the requested records relate to a requester's court status - in this case, the documents specifically related to Bradley's case.
It added that if Bradley's request for records on the State Police overtime scandal were "unclear or overly burdensome," under the law, State Police "had the obligation to "suggest a reasonable modification of the scope of the request or offer to assist the requestor to modify the scope of the request if doing so would enable the agency . . . to produce records sought more efficiently and affordably," rather than simply ignoring the request.