Open magistrates’ hearings

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We understand why some clerk magistrate’s hearings are private. Accusations are easy to make. Providing evidence to back up those accusations is more difficult, and you don’t want to sully the reputation of an individual with a baseless claim.

That wasn’t the case with Paul Bagnall, the Edgartown shellfish constable, who is accused of intentionally damaging his neighbor’s lawn with his town truck.

Bagnall was investigated by the Edgartown Police. A detective spoke with Bagnall. He also spoke with Bagnall’s neighbor. And he examined evidence, including a videotape.

We petitioned clerk magistrate Liza Williamson for access to a clerk magistrate’s hearing involving Bagnall — and were denied.

We think Williamson got it wrong. Her reasoning just doesn’t work in this case.

“The legal considerations which dictate the public character of a trial are not present here,” she wrote. “There is no tradition of public access to show-cause hearings, which are similar to grand jury proceedings. Such secrecy protects individuals against whom complaints are denied from undeserved notoriety, embarrassment, and disgrace.”

Williamson’s decision went on, “This is particularly significant since there is no libel protection in civil law against accusations made in a criminal complaint application, no matter how scurrilous.”

With all due respect, this case was investigated by a reputable police officer, and is not just a neighbor bringing a criminal complaint forward.

Finally, Williamson wrote, “Since the accused is ordinarily entitled to privacy at this early stage, public hearings are the exception rather than the rule. The fact that the accused is a public official and operating a town-issued truck is not itself a sufficient reason to open a show-cause hearing to the public. This matter has not been in the news or otherwise made known to the public in such a manner that the public interest outweighs the privacy of the defendant.”

In this case, Bagnall had already been summonsed on a charge, and the case diverted to a magistrate’s hearing. That means it appeared in the court report, and the police report is public record. The Times was in the process of reporting a story about the allegations, and spoke to Bagnall, who told us about the magistrate’s hearing the next day. We decided to petition for access and for the outcome before publishing the story.

We understand that Williamson is just following precedent. But bad precedent is bad precedent. It’s something the Globe Spotlight team attempted to shine the light on with a series of stories about these secret court proceedings. According to the Globe, only in Massachusetts are the magistrates’ hearings presumed closed. It should be the other way around. These hearings should be presumed open, just like other court proceedings.

Williamson did the right thing and issued a complaint for a criminal charge against Bagnall, and the court will ultimately decide his guilt or innocence.

Meanwhile, this case shows a system that’s broken. State Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, and state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, and the rest of the legislature, can and should repair it in the public interest of transparency.

8 COMMENTS

  1. George Brennan… sit down with me for a lesson of justice with my experiences behind that closed door to the public. George never knew Queenie, Paul’s mom, who instilled second chances in Edgartown kids. Clerk/Magistrate Tommy Teller knew second chances too. He understood good people had bad days. He dispensed his justice. I’m giving you a break… don’t disappoint me. I’m reminiscing. I happened to be driving through Paul’s neighborhood and saw him standing next to the damage. I had no idea of what transpired when I stopped to say hi. We had a good talk. I brought up Queenie.
    George, nobody’s perfect…

  2. If you want us to believe your claim to access in this show-cause hearing rests on the impeccable reputation of the police?
    You of all people know the police can and do get it wrong.
    For every “not guilty” verdict ever delivered, there was an entire police department that got it wrong.
    Paul, on the other hand, is one of the few who emerged out of his position, with a very well respected reputation for fairness.
    To paraphrase your words, reasoning that just doesn’t work in present times.

    • I retired with dignity… 33 years as a cop and 15 years as police chief. Policing is a vocation… learned with experience. I would never jeopardize my standing in the community or stain my family history of four generations of policing. Treat people as you should be treated is a simple concept… those without those qualities make bad cops.

      • My point was… Paul should be able to retire with the dignity he earned. He worked as a dedicated Edgartown department head for 40 years. Paul didn’t deserve the headlines because of one bad day.

        Merry Christmas… from Paul to Paul… lol.

  3. Hi there, third time trying to get my comment posted… If the fact I didn’t put my full name on previous attempts as the issue, curious if it is. Please advise, thank you.
    My original comment:
    As the article states, it appears that Magistrate Williamson was in line with previously set precedent and procedure for these types of cases. It is her job to validate and verify claims made by citizens of the Commonwealth, as well as analyze the data/facts from all parties involved.
    Since the police report is public information, it could well be used in the article to describe the circumstances of the accusation, however, simply printing the police report may not go into the depths that are required to ensure that the presumption of innocence is applied, in keeping with the American justice system. (As public interpretations of the report may vary).
    By keeping hearings such as this closed, as per standard protocol, she was ensuring libel protection against a member of an extremely small community. The courts are set up to determine appropriateness of charges in any particular case, keeping this information out of ‘the court of public opinion’ until vetted through the system.
    We were not presented with the results of the detective’s investigation, unsure why this was not shared. We can, however, see that after consideration, Magistrate Williamson did see reason to raise charges.
    The writer does touch on ‘bad precedent’… this indicates a system failure, not one for which Magistrate Williamson should be held individually accountable. Flawed system issues, especially in this context, present their own challenges.
    An article focused on fixing the problem and expanding the discussion would be a much more constructive use of your time and serve the public interest in a more meaningful way.

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