In a matter of first impression, the Fairfax County Circuit Court ruled that psychological reports from a sanity evaluation that have been admitted into evidence in support of an uncontested not guilty by reason of insanity plea “should be, and hereby are, open to public inspection.”
“Because the Defendant in this case has not overcome the presumption of openness, and the public interest is so great, the Court holds, and hereby orders, that the sanity evaluation reports … be made available by the Clerk of the Court for public inspection and, if requested, duplication,” Judge Randy I. Bellows wrote.
Bellows authored the court’s memorandum opinion and order in Commonwealth v. Bellini (VLW 023-8-021) earlier this month.
The defendant initially entered a not guilty plea for multiple criminal charges. The Fairfax County General District Court certified the case to the grand jury, which indicted the defendant in November 2021.
In 2022, the defendant presented a notice of intent to present evidence of insanity, and the court appointed a sanity evaluator. Later that year, the commonwealth further moved to appoint an expert to evaluate the defendant, and the court ordered the defendant be evaluated “by a licensed clinical psychologist” who would submit a report to both parties.
In March 2023, the defendant entered an uncontested not guilty by reason of insanity plea, which was accepted by the court.
Following the plea, “the issue of disclosure of the sanity evaluations arose” when one of the victim’s children requested to review the reports.
In briefing, the commonwealth argued the psychology reports admitted into evidence supporting an uncontested not guilty by reason of insanity plea should be open for public inspection.
In supporting the argument, the commonwealth relied “on the principle that admitted court records are presumptively open to the public.”
The commonwealth further noted that, in order to seal such records, “the defendant would have to establish that disclosure of the records would cause actual harm,” which the commonwealth claimed the defendant had not shown.
The defendant requested the court seal the records, asserting that “there is a compelling interest in sealing mental health records,” and that the specific records in this case “contain a substantial amount” of personal health information.
However, a footnote in the opinion clarified that the defendant “consents to the records being made available to review by the victims in this case.”
Bellows pointed out that “there is no controlling legal authority on this case.”
He first noted that Virginia law governing access to judicial records — Virginia Code § 17.1-208(B) — states in relevant part that “[e]xcept as otherwise provided by law, any records that are maintained by the clerks of the circuit courts shall be open to inspection in the office of the clerk by any person.”
Bellows added that both the Virginia Supreme Court and the Virginia Court of Appeals have held that there is “a strong presumption in favor of public access to judicial records,” with that presumption of openness applying “with particular strength” to records admitted into evidence.
That presumption of openness, the judge said, “can be overcome” if the moving party establishes “actual, rather than abstract, harm.”
Bellows also referenced a 2009 advisory opinion issued by then-Acting Attorney General William C. Mims, which provided that competency evaluation reports ordered by and submitted to a court are “open to inspection… provided that such report is not sealed by court order.”
“When a competency evaluation report is submitted to a court, the presumption of openness conflicts with the presumption of privacy. The Attorney General noted that when statutes conflict, the ‘more specific statute prevails.’ In this case, the Attorney General determined the statute on inspection of judicial records was more specific than the health records privacy statute,” Bellows wrote on Mims’ advisory opinion.
Next, Bellows looked to law from other jurisdictions, noting that the cases were “not controlling” but “have been helpful to the court in considering this issue.”
Bellows provided five cases from a wide range of courts, which all ultimately denied petitions to keep records under seal, with courts “err[ing] on the side of openness” or determining that “the defendants’ privacy interests were not outweighed by the compelling interest of the plaintiff in obtaining the records.”
“Undeniably, the public has a great interest in the disposition of criminal acts that end in a finding of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity,” Bellows wrote, tying back to the instant case.
“The public interest in access to these particular records is substantial,” the judge said. “Given the gravity of the case, and given the other circumstances described above, the Court finds that the public should have access to these records.”
Bellows further held that the court “need not reach the question of whether or not sanity evaluation reports are ‘health records’” as defined in Va. Code § 32.1-127:103(B).
“Even if the Court were to assume the reports constitute ‘health records,’ it would not alter the Court’s determination that admitted sanity evaluation reports, at least under the circumstances of this case, should be open for public inspection,” Bellows wrote.
Bellows suspended the order for 14 days, allowing until April 21 for the defendant to file an appeal.