How do Criminal Court Proceedings in Massachusetts Start?

The criminal process begins at the time of arrest or when a criminal Complaint or Indictment is issued. In order to arrest or search a person, police must have probable cause to believe that a crime was committed, and that person committed it.

In some cases, such as a traffic stop, police only need a reasonable suspicion that a driver has violated the law in order to justify stopping someone. If evidence of criminal activity is discovered, the police officer will have probable cause to make an arrest.


If you’re accused of committing a misdemeanor crime and you aren’t arrested, and if a police officer didn’t witness the event you are charged for, you’re entitled to a Show-Cause Hearing – also called a “Clerk’s Hearing” –  before a Clerk-Magistrate in District Court.

If the Clerk Magistrate decides that probable cause has been shown, a criminal Complaint is issued by the Magistrate, and a District Attorney, or “prosecutor”, then prosecutes the case based on that Complaint.

If a police officer is a witness to the event that you are being charged for, he or she can write an Application for Complaint, under oath, and the Clerk Magistrate can issue a criminal Complaint based on that application. No Clerk’s Hearing will take place.


More serious felony cases begin in Superior Court after an Indictment has been brought by the government through a Grand Jury. Sometimes more serious cases will start in District Court, and the prosecutors will go before a grand jury and get an indictment to move the case to Superior Court.

Once an Indictment or Complaint has been brought against you, formal charges will be made by the prosecutor, and either a summons will be issued for you to appear in court for an Arraignment, or an arrest warrant will be issued.

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Summons to Appear

When a criminal complaint is issued or if a Show Cause Hearing is scheduled, usually a Summons will be sent to the person being accused.  A summons is a notice that you are required to appear in court on a certain date at a certain time.  A summons is sent when a Show Cause Hearing is scheduled.

A Summons is also sent if a Complaint has been issued without a show cause hearing, to notify you of the date and time of your Arraignment. Summonses are also sent to witnesses later in the case if they are required to appear for a hearing or trial.

If you receive a Summons, DO NOT ignore it.  If you fail to appear for a Show Cause Hearing, a Criminal Complaint will automatically issue against you.  If you fail to obey a Summons for an Arraignment, a warrant will issue for your arrest.

Arrest Warrants

A warrant can be issued for your arrest after an Indictment or Complaint are issued by the Court. Often, the District Court will issue a Summons and mail it to you.  The Summons will instruct you to appear on a certain day for an Arraignment.  Sometimes, however, the prosecutor or police may request an arrest warrant to issue, which will allow the police to arrest you and bring you directly to Court.

If you fail to show up for a required court event, a warrant will be issued for your arrest to bring you in to court.

A warrant instructs the police to arrest you and bring you to Court to face a criminal charge or explain why you failed to show for a scheduled and required court event.  If you’ve received notice of a warrant by mail, or have been told by someone credible that there’s a warrant out for your arrest, don’t ignore it.

Warrants never go away if you ignore them.   Warrants are entered into a computer database that can be accessed by various government agencies. When you get pulled over for a minor traffic violation the police can arrest you based on the outstanding warrant. If you go in to renew your driver’s license, a warrant will show up in the DMVs computer system.

When you’ve been notified that there’s a warrant for your arrest, it’s best to contact a good criminal attorney to discuss your options. After planning your defense strategy, they will go with you to court to appear before the judge before you are arrested and brought there by the police.

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Arrest and Bail

If you are arrested at the scene of an alleged crime or on a warrant, the police will take you to the police station and book you into custody. In most instances, an after-hours bail commissioner or clerk will then set a bail for your arrest.  Bail is an amount of money you have to pay to be released from custody.  If you show up for court, the money will be returned to you when the case is resolved, and if you don’t show up, the money is forfeited to the government.  The bail clerk will set some amount, plus a fee of $40.  The $40 goes to the clerk to pay for his or her time. On some occasions, no bail will be set at the police station, and you will have to wait to be brought to court before bail is set.

If there is a charge of domestic violence, the law requires a minimum 6-hour “cooling off” period before you can be released.

When you post bail, you will be given a piece of paper telling you when to show up in Court for Arraignment. Often, but not always, Arraignment is scheduled for the next day. If you can’t post bail or find someone who can do it for you, you will be held at the police station until court reconvenes; usually the following business day. Upon arriving in court, you’ll appear before the judge at an Arraignment Hearing.

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