Mass. Domestic Violence Law Criticized as Inconsistent, Burdensome to Small Media Outlets

By Dave Rogers

rogersFor journalists, police logs are an essential tool in terms of peeking into a community and determining what ails it. For example, just by seeing who is arrested and for what reporters can get a good sense if a community is experiencing an uptick in domestic violence incidents. But thanks to the new domestic violence law in Massachusetts, which forbids police departments from releasing the names of those arrested for domestic assault and battery and related offenses, an important tool is gone. (Read NEFAC’s prior coverage of the law here.)

It was intended for the new law to protect victims of domestic violence by keeping the names of those who attacked them secret. As currently constituted, its protection ends at the courthouse. At arraignment, the identities of those arrested for domestic violence are revealed and the police narratives are made available to the public. Typically, if a defendant is afforded bail he or she is ordered to stay away from the victim whose name is almost always uttered in the courtroom.

News organizations with dedicated courthouse reporters will be able to write about these offenses just by sitting in the courtroom each day and watching who is brought into the courtroom for arraignment. I’ve seen dozens of defendants brought into Newburyport District Court that way. None of the revealed identities have made my head spin. But I’m waiting for the day when a town official, a local business owner or some other well-known person is led into the courtroom prompting me to drop my notebook in shock.

Privately, one clerk expressed disbelief that the law doesn’t carry over into the courthouse. Either expand the law so that the victim’s name is redacted from all court records and not mentioned during the arraignment or just ditch the law entirely. In other words, be consistent.

The new law will prove especially challenging for weekly newspapers or web-only news organizations, which simply don’t have the staff to send a reporter to a courthouse regularly. Without that court presence, there really isn’t a way of knowing how many domestic violence arrests are being made by local police.

So far, Greater Newburyport police departments have been consistent with enforcing the new law, despite reservations expressed by more than one police chief. Occasionally, however, the names of those accused of domestic violence have made it on to a daily police log. Also, dispatchers unfamiliar with the law will sometimes provide the names of those arrested for domestic violence along with the names of everyone else arrested during a shift.

Could that signify the start of a subtle revolt in terms of enforcing the non-disclosure aspect of the law? Probably not. The grumblings I have heard from police chiefs are more to do with the mandatory six-hour incarceration for all those arrested on domestic violence charges. More realistically, journalists will have to come up with yet another work-around to obtain this information be it weekly visits to their nearest courthouse or by waiting for a green dispatcher or an empathetic police officer to give up the goods.

Dave has been a journalist since 1998. He currently covers Newburyport District Court for the Daily News of Newburyport. He lives in Beverly, Mass.

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