WAREHAM — Southcoast Health President and CEO Keith A. Hovan, who is currently on paid leave, is scheduled to appear in Wareham District Court on Jan. 10 for a show cause hearing regarding a possible felony charge for possessing allegedly illegal firearm magazines.

This type of court proceeding is presumed closed to the public in Massachusetts, but The Light requested the public have access to this hearing given the publicity Hovan’s case has already received. 

The Wareham clerk magistrate denied the request. 

“The issue involved in the show cause hearing has no connection to his position as CEO of Southcoast Health nor to the reason he was charged with assault and battery. The issue is a separate personal matter,” Wareham Clerk Magistrate Daryl G. Manchester wrote in an email on Jan. 4. “Therefore, I find that Mr. Hovan is entitled to the privacy of the show [cause] hearing process and that the interest of the public does not outweigh that right to privacy.”

Show cause hearings are in most cases held when a person has not been arrested, but is accused by law enforcement or another individual of committing a crime. Massachusetts is an outlier in closing these hearings to the public and press. The reasoning: to protect people from “undeserved notoriety, embarrassment and disgrace” if complaints against them are denied and no charges are issued, according to state district court standards.

For example, a person can have a criminal complaint brought against them by an angry neighbor. There’s a possibility the neighbor has unfounded claims and if the hearing is open, anyone can hear them. Even if the person is never charged, public knowledge of and access to the proceedings could still negatively affect the person’s reputation and professional or personal life.

A person or organization, however, can request the hearing be opened to the public (and thereby the press) by arguing that legitimate public interests outweigh the accused’s right of privacy, according to the court standards.

It is not sufficient that the accused is well known or a public official. A request should also show the incident has attracted public attention, thereby diminishing the interest in shielding the accused’s privacy, the court standards state. However, a court opinion cited by the standards states that not every case that attracts public attention “necessarily requires” a public hearing.

The Light on Dec. 21 filed a motion to access the hearing in an email to Manchester, citing the court standards.

“The transparency that open proceedings afford may be especially important if a well-publicized show cause hearing results in a decision not to bring criminal charges, thereby ending the matter,” the court standards state, quoting a court opinion. “In such cases, the public may question whether justice has been done behind the closed doors of the hearing room.”

Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, interviews New Bedford Light reporter Anastasia Lennon about The Light’s appeal for an open hearing in Keith Hovan’s illegal ammunition case.

The Light argued that Hovan’s case, his arrest for alleged domestic assault and battery (a charge that has since been dismissed), and the possible charge for illegal firearm magazines have already gained public attention through coverage from several local and Boston-based news outlets. 

The Light on Wednesday afternoon appealed Manchester’s decision in an email to Wareham District Court Judge Edward H. Sharkansky, and will also deliver an appeal letter in person on Thursday. 

The Standard-Times successfully petitioned for access to a show cause hearing in the OUI case of Ward 3 City Councilor Hugh Dunn in late 2021. Fall River District Court Clerk Magistrate John O’Neil granted public access after consulting with Dunn, his attorney and the state prosecutor. 

The threshold to issue any charge in a show cause hearing is probable cause, which the state defines as “reasonably trustworthy information” sufficient to warrant a “prudent person” in believing a crime has been committed and that the accused is the perpetrator.

In some cases, magistrates do not issue charges even if probable cause is found, as was shown in a Boston Globe investigative series on these closed-door hearings. 

Following extensive data and records analysis that showed many accused were cleared despite sufficient evidence of a crime, Globe reporters called these courts the “land of arbitrary second chances, where the powerful, the privileged, and the lucky” can have serious charges “quietly swept away.”

A magistrate must authorize a felony complaint sought by law enforcement if there is probable cause, but may decline to do so if the District Attorney’s office communicates to the court its opposition to the complaint, according to the court standards.

According to Rochester Police, Hovan had in his possession rounds ranging from 12 to 100 per magazine or drum for the allegedly illegal magazines; most were 30 rounds or fewer. A 100-round capacity magazine they found is noted in the police report as being “for law enforcement only.”

According to a report, there were roughly 19,500 rounds of ammunition in total. The firearms in Hovan’s possession were found to be legal and stored properly.

Email Anastasia Lennon at alennon@newbedfordlight.org

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