In Massachusetts District Court cases can begin by either an arrest and application by the police for a criminal charge to be issued or an application for complaint requesting a clerk magistrates hearing also known as a show cause hearing. When the police are witnesses to an event or the charge is a felony they have the right to apply directly for the charge to be issued and an accused would be brought to court in custody or sent a summons for an arraignment. An arraignment is the formal reading the of charges in open court where a plea of not guilty is entered and the court inquires of the accused as to whether he has an attorney or is seeking a court-appointed attorney because they cannot afford a private attorney. A court appointed attorney is only provided to the indigent or those who make less than a certain amount every year. The amount of salary required to not qualify for a court appointed attorney is very low, if you work at all it is difficult to receive a court-appointed attorney.
The other way the case can begin in District Court other then by arrest and arraignment is by application for criminal complaint. A person is entitled to have a criminal clerk magistrates hearing related to misdemeanors in which the police are not a witness. The clerk magistrate or show cause hearing is an informal hearing in front of the clerk magistrate in which a police officer usually reads from a police report as to the facts which make up the charge against the accused. At times witnesses are brought in by the police to testify especially when it is one witness’s word versus the accused which makes up the case. The standard of proof for issuing the charge is one of probable cause to believe that the accused was involved in the crime. The clerk magistrate’s hearing is not a trial, rules of evidence are relaxed and a clerk is the one who decides whether probable cause exists to issue a charge. An accused can testify and also bring in witnesses or evidence to help explain his side. One must be very careful because the accused will be placed under oath anything a person says at the hearing can be used against him on a later date if the charges issue.
The clerk magistrate can decide not to issue the charge and take the matter under advisement where it will disappear after a certain amount of time as long as there are no new accusations against the accused. A matter can always be brought back on a later date and issued if new developments have aggravated the situation.
If the clerk decides to issue the charge all this means is that now the case will begin in court and the accused will be given a date for arraignment for the case to begin. This is basically how cases begin in District Court.
Every county in Massachusetts has several district courts within it but each county only has one Superior Court. The superior courts handle more serious matters which are those which Carry a potential sentence of over 2 1/2 years. 2 1/2 years is the longest a person can be sent to the House of Corrections, if a charge requires a longer sentence it is served at the department of corrections. The department of corrections deals with those convicted of felonies and sentenced to over 2 ½ years. The Department of Corrections has different levels from maximum security for violent felons down to minimum-security or Workcamp type facilities.
For a case to reach Superior Court the accused must be indicted by a grand jury or have a probable cause hearing in front of a judge. The purpose for this is to assure there is minimal proof linking the accused to the crime before requiring the person to face charges. This is the same purpose of the clerk magistrate hearing in District Court. A grand jury is usually made up of anywhere between 16 to 25 people from the community who sit for a term of several months hearing large amounts of cases presented by the prosecutor’s office. The grand jury is a private hearing in which the prosecutor informally presents evidence such as police officers or detectives as well as the victims of crimes who relate the evidence against the accused and the charges that are being sought against the accused. Grand jurors can ask questions of the witnesses as can the prosecutor who directs the witnesses testimony. An accused and his attorney have no right to be present in the grand jury while they are hearing or deciding on a case. At times and accused may request to testify and give his side of events to a grand jury. A criminal lawyer must be consulted before someone offers to testify in front of a grand jury especially if they are considered the target of the investigation. The level of proof to indict someone is again based on probable cause linking the accused to the crime. It is not a trial, the defendant and his attorney are not even present. It is merely a show cause hearing to ensure that there is some link between the accused and the crime.
A probable cause hearing is also another manner in which a person may be indicted. It is used very rarely. It is a hearing in which the accused and his attorney are present in open court and where evidence is presented to a judge rather than a grand jury, very similar to a clerk magistrates hearing but the judge decides whether probable cause exists for a charge to be issued. The differences is the accused is present with an attorney and the witnesses can be cross examined and what they say can be used later against the witness if the case is issued by the judge. The reason that this is used so rarely by the Commonwealth is because it offers the defense a bite at the Apple when it comes to cross examining the witnesses. Many cases especially sexual assaults are sensitive in nature and the Commonwealth attempts to limit the exposure of the victim or central witnesses who would need to testify. Probable cause hearings
also require the court to expend judicial resources that are very limited already in dealing with huge bottleneck of pending charges that already exist on the trial docket.
If you face a clerk magistrates hearing or if you or summonsed as a witness or the target of a grand jury proceeding you need to speak with a criminal lawyer in Boston as soon as possible to get advice as to what to expect in your best course of action. Feel free to call Frank Fernandez a Boston from a lawyer to receive a free consultation related to your specific situation. Please call 617-393-0250