Overview of the Criminal Procedures in Massachusetts State District Courts

Most criminal cases in Massachusetts happen in the District Court system. This system oversees most crimes and charges throughout the greater Boston area and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. More serious cases take place in the Massachusetts Superior Court, which has its own system of procedures and penalties.

If you have charges pending against you, always talk to an attorney for expert legal advice and what will be the best way to defend yourself against those charges. Avoid talking to the police about legal advice and how your case might be handled. It is generally in your best interest to speak to an attorney once you have been charged or if you believe you are about to be charged with a crime. Our attorneys are available around the clock to offer you the best legal counsel and representation possible. Call 617.492.3000 or 800.481.6199 (toll free) or contact us online to request your free case evaluation.

Arrest/Summons: Beginning the Criminal Process

An arrest happens when the police take a person into custody who law enforcement officials believe have broken the law. At the scene, the police will interview witnesses about what happened, and the accused person will also be asked to give a statement. It is usually best for the accused to avoid speaking to the police, as this statement can be used to help acquit or convict the person later on.

After an arrest, the person goes to a police station to be booked; the person is fingerprinted, photographed, and answers general questions such as name, address, and so on. Miranda Rights, which are the right the remain silent, the right to have a lawyer, the right to have a lawyer free even if the person cannot afford one, and the right to stop questioning at any time, will be read before any more questioning will begin. The accused should insist on speaking to a lawyer before giving any answers, in order to avoid self-incrimination.

Once a person is arrested, a bail commissioner determines what the bail amount, if any, will be. The arrested person is then allowed to make calls to try to pay the bail, and is then released. The person is then expected to appear in court, usually the next business day. It is highly recommended to retain a Boston, Massachusetts criminal defense attorney prior to arraignment.

A summons is paperwork mailed directly to a person showing that a criminal complaint has been or will be issued against that person. He or she needs to be in a specific court at a particular day and time. If that person does not appear, a warrant is issued for that person and he or she can be arrested from that point on. Should you receive a summons in the mail, it is generally in your best interest to contact a criminal defense attorney so you can understand what you are being charged with as well as the possible consequences of such charges.

Court Procedures

An arraignment is the first court appearance scheduled after an arrest or summons (typically the next business day after an arrest, or the court date mentioned in the summons) and it is where the accused is formally told what the charges are against him or her. It is also where the court enters a plea for that person, and where the accused will find out if there is additional bail set against him or her in addition to what was set by the bail commissioner earlier. The accused should also get paperwork that details his/her charges (called the Complaint), a police report, and the date and time of the pre-trial conference, which is the next court date scheduled.

The pre-trial conference, typically four weeks after the arraignment, is when the accused’s lawyer defending the case and the assistant district attorney (ADA) prosecuting the case talk about potential plea options (how the case can end before going to court) or if the case will go to court. If so, a pre-trial conference report is written that details that both the prosecution will turn all its evidence to the accused, and the defense will turn over certain information to the ADA. The next court appearance set for the accused is the compliance and election date, which is usually about four weeks away.

The compliance and election date is when all evidence should be handed over to the accused, and when the accused states if he or she wants a trial by a judge alone, or by a jury. This is a decision that is best discussed with one’s attorney to determine the pros and cons of each. The trial date is set at this time.

In the District Court, a trial is heard by a judge alone or by a jury of six random people chosen from the greater population. In any trial, the government must prove that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A trial begins with the prosecution making an opening statement, which shows what the evidence is expected to support the case against the accused. The defense attorney can also make an opening statement or not. The prosecution then calls witnesses and questions them and the defense attorney can then cross-examine each witness. Once the prosecution is done calling witnesses, it rests its case. The defense attorney can then call witnesses, though does not have to do so, and then rests its case. Then the defense attorney and then the prosecuting attorney each make their closing arguments.

At this point, a judge either decides on his/her own, or a jury deliberates by analyzing all evidence and witness statements to determine, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether the accused is guilty of the charges or not. The jury’s decision must be unanimous.

Plea Bargaining

There can be several conditions where the defense and the prosecution discuss pleas before a case goes to trial. This can happen when there is a very strong case where the accused has confessed to the crime, or because the case is likely to be resolved where the accused will not have a criminal record as a result of the plea. Different situations can involve dismissing the charges if court costs are paid (typically in very minor charges, such as bouncing a check), pre-trial probation or continuance without a finding, where the accused can promise to stay out of trouble, do community service, for a particular amount of time. At the end of that time, the case is dismissed if the probationary time passed without any problems. There is also a guilty finding plea, where the accused is convicted, but the plea may lessen the punishment to probation instead of jail time.

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