Stages Of A Criminal Case in Massachusetts State Court
Criminal cases in Massachusetts go through several procedural stages. During the course of your case you will hear the lawyers and judge refer to these terms. The descriptions in this list are general and meant for the layperson. There are numerous rules, statutes and cases that relate to the terms used below; your lawyer knows about those (hopefully). You don’t have to.
Complaint — A Criminal Complaint is the document that officially charges you with a crime. it lists the offenses you are alleged to have committed, and the penalties they carry. It is not evidence against you, it is simply the way the case gets started in court. The “docket number” at the top of the complaint is the number the court will use to identify that case.
Indictment — If the charge is a felony, and if the government wishes to pursue the case in the Superior Court, the prosecutor must go before a grand jury and prove “probable cause” that a crime was committed and that you are the person who committed it. The grand jury will vote on whether it is more likely than not that a crime was committed, and that you committed it. If they vote “yes”, then an Indictment will issue. This is the document that takes the place of a Complaint in the Superior Court. The grand jury proceeding almost always happen without you knowing about it.
Show-Cause Hearing — If the charge is a misdemeanor or a felony that can stay in District Court, and if no police officer witnessed the offense, then the probable cause determination will be made before a Clerk-Magistrate in an informal hearing. Usually, these take place in a conference room at the District Court, and the only people in the room are the magistrate,a police officer, and you — and your lawyer if you have one.
Arraignment — This is your first appearance before a judge, when you are officially notified of the charges against you. This is when you will receive copies of the Complaint or Indictment.
Bail Hearing — At a bail hearing, it will be decided whether you will be released on your own recognizance, or held on bail. If you are held on bail, you will not be released from custody until someone posts with the court the amount of money set by the judge at the bail hearing.
Dangerousness Hearing — Also known as a “58A” hearing, this is when the prosecutor asks the judge to have you held in custody without any bail, so that, as a practical matter, you cannot get out until the case is resolved. A request for a dangerousness hearing is usually made at arraignment. The hearing must be held within seven days.
Pretrial Hearing — This is the first court date after the arraignment. Lots of things can happen at this hearing, depending upon your case and your lawyer’s strategy. Depending upon the particular court, there could well be more than one pretrial hearing date.
Pretrial Conference — This is a meeting between the prosecutor and your lawyer at which they agree, as far as they can, upon the details of the trial, should there be one. They discuss things like the number and identity of witnesses for each side, any special legal issues that have to be decided by the judge, and whether any substantive motions are going to be filed, such as motions to dismiss or suppress. In Superior Court, the pretrial conference is often scheduled by the court. In District Court, the pretrial conference happens during another scheduled court date, often a pretrial hearing.
Compliance Date — If the judge orders the prosecutor to turn information over to the defense, he will establish a compliance date by which the information must be supplied. Often the “discovery” is supplied on the compliance date itself. The compliance date can be an in-court date, when the parties have to appear before the judge an confirm that the information was turned over, or out-of- court, where the defense has the burden of bringing the case back in front of the judge if the information is not received.
Election Date — The court date scheduled for the election of a trial date. Even if you have no intention of going to trial, you may have an election date scheduled. In the District Court, the Compliance and Elections Dates are often combined, and the case is scheduled for “C & E” on a particular day.
Motion Date — The date on which the court has scheduled the hearing of a motion in your case.
Status Date — At any point in the case after arraignment, your case could be scheduled for a status date, which essentially means that everyone is waiting for something to happen. Status dates are scheduled when the parties are awaiting receipt of medical records, the outcome of some hearing or trial, a psychiatric evaluation, or one of many other events.
Trial Date — The date upon which you are scheduled to go to trial. Most district courts will have several, if not many cases scheduled for trial on the same day. Most of those cases will be resolved on that day without trial, some may be continued (rescheduled) for various reasons, and usually at least one will go to trial before a jury. Some people think that because many cases are scheduled for their trial date, they will not really have to go to trial that day. Those are usually the people who do go to trial that day, and are unprepared. If your trial is scheduled in the Superior Court, your case will go to trial that day, unless you decide to change your plea.