Are Massachusetts Records Public?
The majority of all the records and information created or used by the various government entities are open to the public. The Massachusetts Public Records Law defines public records as information made, received, or used by any officer or employee of the commonwealth or any person or organization funded by the commonwealth (G. L. c. 4, § 7(26)). Records considered public information in Massachusetts according to the states public records laws include the following:
- Massachusetts inmate records
- Marriage and divorce records
- Birth and Death records
- Sex offender information
- Massachusetts Property and land records
- Arrest records
- Massachusetts crime statistics
- Criminal records and criminal history records
Public records act requests can be made to a government agency's administrative office or Records Access Officer (RAO). The RAO coordinates responses, identifies the records requesters, and generally assists people looking for public records. The public records law also instructs that the RAO must permit records inspection or provide copies of non-exempt public records at reasonable times and without unreasonable delays.
Certain record custodian government agencies may also maintain a free public data search database for certain types of records. For instance, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board's (SORB) public sex offerers database. A public data search may be performed by interested parties through these types of databases.
Who Can Access Massachusetts Public Records?
The Massachusetts Public Records Law allows anyone to request public records from government entities and municipalities in Massachusetts. The commonwealth of Massachusetts is among several states who do not insist a requester is a resident of the state to request state public records. Any individual has the statutory right to view, inspect, and copy all non-exempt public records in Massachusetts under the custody of any government agency or municipality in the state. When a record or part of it is exempt, the RAO must restrict or redact the parts of the exempt records and provide the rest of the record that is not exempt. This is one of the reasons background checks on Massachusetts residents do not always turn up all their records.
Do I Need to State My Purpose and Use When Requesting Public Records in Massachusetts?
According to the government-published Guide to Massachusetts Public Records Law, the requestor is not required to provide any reason for making a request. This is because, generally, the purpose of the request has no bearing on whether a record is considered public information. However, if the requested records raise security concerns, the RAO may ask the requester to state why they require the records. These records include building plans, emergency procedures, and security details of government agencies. The requester does not have to answer, but it may be advantageous to do so.
What is Exempted Under the Massachusetts Public Records Law?
Records Access Officers (RAO) under the Massachusetts Public Records Law must provide a requester with public records requested unless they fall under the statutes’ exemptions (G.L.c.4, § 7(26)). According to the Public Records Law, records with the following data or information are considered exempt and may be held back in part or completely.
- Records that are specifically or by necessary implication exempted from disclosure by statute.
- Records relating to the internal personnel practices and rules of the government agency. These records shall be withheld only to the extent that aids the proper performance for necessary government functions.
- personnel records and medical data or information. This includes any personal or medical data of an individual, the disclosure of which would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
- Any material or information prepared by an employee of the commonwealth which is personal to them and not maintained as property of the government agency.
- Information from investigatory materials that are necessarily compiled out of public view by law enforcement or other investigatory officials. These records are exempt if their disclosure would prejudice the effectiveness of law enforcement, and such disclosure would not be in the public interest.
- Records contain commercial or financial information or trade secrets that were voluntarily given for use in developing governmental policy under a promise of confidentiality. This exemption will not apply to information that was submitted as required by law or as a condition for receiving a governmental benefit or contract.
- Any appraisals of real estate and property acquired or to be acquired by a government agency until a final agreement has been entered. If any litigation relative to the assessment or the property is ongoing, it is exempt till all litigation has been settled or expired.
- Records containing the names and addresses of any persons referred to or involved in any applications for firearms licenses or possessing firearms. This includes any names and addresses on firearms licenses, cards, or on sales or transfers documents of firearms as defined in chapter 140 of the statute.
- Any questions, answers, scoring keys, or other materials used to develop, administer, or score tests, examinations, or assessment instruments.
- Restricted criminal records
- Restricted vital record information such as certified divorce records
Additionally, only the record holder, their family, legal representatives, legal guardians, or other qualified individuals may seek certified copies of certain vital records. A genealogy search could be conducted for uncertified copies. Futhermore, Residents can find a complete list of all exemptions in the state's public records law (G.L.c.4, § 7(26)(a) to (26)(v)).
Where Can I Access Public Criminal Court Records in Massachusetts?
Criminal court records for Massachusetts can be obtained from the clerk of courts where the case was heard. A courthouse locator is offered online on the Massachusetts Court System website and is a valuable tool for locating these courthouses. The public can send written requests to the clerk of court. Residents can also inspect records at the clerk of court’s office and obtain copies if necessary.
Many state courthouses also have public access computers that allow the requester to locate criminal case records. The public access computers run the eAccess application and allow cases to be searched by name, case type, and case number. Interested parties can also search for criminal court records for the appellate court using the online public case search tool. Some case records may be unavailable online. However, residents may be able to request a physical inspection.
How Do I Find Public Records in Massachusetts?
According to the public record laws in Massachusetts, the RAO must permit inspection or furnish a copy to requesters upon getting a valid request. Records can be acquired from an appointed custodian or records officer using a few easy steps.
- Identify the record required and the agency or municipality in custody.
The first thing to do is identify the record you require and which agency or municipality has it. For instance, sex offender records would be at the state sex offenders registry, and arrest records and incident reports would be with state and local law enforcement. Obtaining this information will prevent delays and even denials of public records requests. If a request is sent to the wrong agency or municipality, it may be denied. However, in the denial response, agencies will usually inform requesters of the correct custodian. Meanwhile, the custodian agency for vital records is the state Department of Health Registry of Vital Records (RVRS).
- Contact the Custodian
Government agencies and municipalities are required to appoint a Records Access Office(RAO). This official is in charge of attending to request for public records and must answer all records quickly and efficiently. Requesters must direct all public records requests to the RAO. The contact details of this official are usually provided online on the agency’s website. If unavailable on the site, the requester may call the agency or municipality office and ask to whom the public record request should be addressed.
- Make the request
Record requests can be made in person orally or may be written and submitted to the records access officer. Telephone requests may also be accepted with the permission of the RAO. The request must provide a reasonable and accurate description of the record being requested to allow it to be located quickly. Requests do not require official forms, but the forms may be provided to help the records request process. Written requests and forms can be submitted by hand, by mail, electronically by email, or by facsimile if available. In-person requests must be submitted during the office hours provided on the agency/municipality website. Copies will also only be provided after the RAO receives payment of all required fees. The requester does not have to provide his identity or the purpose of the request, but they may be necessary to determine:
- If the record is being requested for or can be used for commercial purposes
- If the requester may be granted a fee waiver
Using Third-Party Sites to Find Public Records Massachusetts
Some public records may also be accessible through third-party websites. These websites are not limited by geographic location and come with expansive search tools. Record seekers can use these sites to start a search for a specific record or multiple records. To use a search engine on a third-party or government website, interested parties usually must provide:
- The name of the person involved in the record, unless said person is a juvenile
- The location or assumed location of the document or person involved
Third-party sites are independent of government sources and are not sponsored by these government agencies. Because of this, record availability on third-party websites may vary.
How Much Do Public Records Cost in Massachusetts?
Although public inspection of a record is free, Records Access Officers of government agencies or municipalities are allowed to charge for the copying of a record (G. L. c. 66, § 10(d)). The fee charged must be reasonable and must not exceed the actual price of reproducing the record. Standard black and white paper copies of the record cost $0.05 per page. The RAO of the agency or municipality can charge a fee for employees taking time to search for, compile, segregate, redact, or reproduce a requested record.
This takes effect if it takes the employees at a government agency over 4 hours to prepare the record. After the fourth hour, the RAO may charge $25 per hour for every subsequent hour.
Likewise, if it takes the employees at a municipality over 2 hours to locate and prepare a record, it may charge an extra fee. From the third hour, the municipality may charge no more than $25 per hour for every additional hour taken. Records Access Officers in Massachusetts are not allowed to charge a fee for a public record unless the response came in less than ten from the third hourThe business days(G. L. c. 66, § 10(e)).
How Do I Lookup Public Records for Free in Massachusetts?
Locating a public record for free in Massachusetts is usually subject to the form of record being requested and the agency or municipality in custody. The easiest way to look up a record for free would be to request to physically inspect the records at the custodian’s office. Searching for the record online is also a good way to look up a public record for free. Most state courthouses in Massachusetts have public access terminals that allow requesters to lookup court case records for free, then pay for only the copies they want to be made. Courts records can also be looked up for free on the eAccess database and the Public Case search portal. The sex offender registry operated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and its search tools is available online to obtain sex offender records and information for free. Searching the state agency’s website online and requesting to inspect records at its custodian’s office remain the best ways to look up public records for free.
Unfortunately, not all Massachusetts record custodians provide free public record searches. For instance, most records held and managed by county clerk's and county recorder's offices, including certain vital records and land deeds, require payment in order to be accessed and copied.
What Happens if I Am Refused a Public Records Request?
When the RAO of state government agencies receives an open record request, they must respond to it without an unreasonable delay. The denial must be made in writing and must contain a detailed explanation of why the custodian denied the request. If the RAO does not respond within the allotted time of 10 business days, the public data search request can be considered denied. In cases like this, the requester has the option to make an appeal of the decision to the Massachusetts Supervisor of Records (950 CMR, 32.08). All appeals must be made within 90 days of receiving the denial response. If the RAO does not respond, requesters can file an appeal within 90 days of the initial record request. To make an appeal, the requester must send the Supervisor of Records the following documents:
- A complete copy of the initial records request.
- A complete copy of any response or denial of the initial request, if any, is available.
- A brief letter explaining the reason for the appeal.
These documents should be mailed or emailed to the Supervisor of Records at:
Secretary of the Commonwealth
Public Records Division
One Ashburton Place, Room 1719
Boston, MA 02108
The supervisor of records must issue a copy of the appeal to the RAO involved in the appeal. Depending on the reason for the denial, the supervisor may issue a written determination between 5 and 10 business days. If the supervisor determines that the denial was wrongful and a violation of the public records laws has occurred, they can order the RAO to comply. On the other hand, if the records supervisor also issues a denial, the requester may file a civil case at the Massachusetts Superior Court (Session Laws Chapter 121 Section 10A(c)). If the requester prevails in the civil case, the superior court may award litigation fees, attorney fees, and other punitive damages under Session Laws Chapter 121 Section 10A(d).
How to Remove Names From Public Search Records?
Ordinarily, you cannot completely remove a name from a public record. In some cases, it may be possible to seal a record by a court order. Criminal records can also be removed entirely or expunged in Massachusetts by the Office of the Commissioner of Probations. There are two forms of expungement possible in Massachusetts:
- Time-based Expungement.
- Non-Time-Based Expungement.
To qualify for time-based expungement, the offense must meet the following criteria:
- The requester must have no more than two records though multiple offenses from the same case will be considered as one.
- The incident must not have resulted in dead or serious injury and must not have been intended to cause death or serious injury.
- The offense was not committed against a disabled or elderly victim.
- The offense was not committed while armed or carrying a deadly weapon.
- The offense was not a sex offense, a violent sex offense, or one against a minor.
- The offense was not committed under the influence of drugs or liquor.
- If the crime is a felony, all parts of the sentence must have been completed at least seven years ago. If it is a misdemeanor, all aspects of the sentence must have been completed at least three years before applying for expunging the record.
An individual can qualify for non-time-based expungement of a record if the record was based on the following:
- False and unauthorized use of your identification or identity
- Identity theft
- Offenses that are no longer a crime (e.g., possession of little amounts of marijuana)
- Errors by law enforcement
- Errors by a civilian or expert witness
- Errors by court employees
- Fraud perpetrated on the court
Generally, there are differences between time-based and non-time-based expungement procedures for qualifying records. For a time-based qualified record, the record holder must complete the time-based expungement petition form and submit it to the Commissioner of Probation at:
The Commissioner of Probation
One Ashburton Place, Room 405
Boston, MA, 02108
However, for a non-time-based expungement, the record holder must fill out the non-time-based expungement petition form and deliver it to the court clerk's office where the case was heard. The court may be a Massachusetts superior court, municipal court, juvenile court, or district court. When state public records have been expunged or sealed, they are made inaccessible to the public. Thus, the Massachusetts public records act can no longer be used as a basis to access them.
What is the Best Public Records Search Database?
The best public records search will usually be operated by the government agency-appointed custodians of the record in question. In Massachusetts, a lot of state government agencies operate online databases where people can perform public searches for records online. Worcester County, for example, has an inmate search application run by their sheriff’s office, which allows inmate information to be accessed online. Likewise, the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds provides access to a database. These databases (and similar databases) offer some of the best ways to access public records covered by the Massachusetts Public Records Act.
How Long Does It Take to Obtain a Massachusetts Public Record?
The Records Access Office(RAO) at the government entity or municipality must answer all public records act requests within ten business days. Regardless of whether the government entity is a state or local agency. The RAO must respond in this time assume the following:
- The request reasonably and accurately describes the record
- The requester pays all required fees as listed in the statutes
- The record is in the custody or control of the agency/municipality that the RAO serves
If the government agency/municipality denies the request to access public information they maintain or cannot fulfill the request, they must respond in writing within ten business days of receiving the request. Custodians must deliver a response by mail or an email confirming receipt of the request and giving reasons why it cannot be fulfilled. (G. L. c. 66, § 10(b)).
Is Public Data Search Safe?
Yes. Government agencies in Massachusetts offer secure public data search services. Through these services, the public can access a variety of public records. For instance, vital records are provided by the state Department of Health and criminal records are compiled from various state law enforcement agencies. As mentioned previously, certain state agencies also offer free public data search databases for specific records. An example of such a database is the state Sex Offender Registry Board (SORB) sex offenders registry.
The state public records act also permits the distribution of public records via third-party websites in addition to governmental entities. These third party sites are managed by private entities and are not government-sponsored. Despite being useful options for acquiring public documents, third-party websites have their own pitfalls. One of them is errors in the reporting of public records due to some website databases not being updated as frequently as they need to be. Thus, leading to expunged records being reported.