Arrest or Summons – How Criminal Cases in Massachusetts Start


Most people understand what it means to be arrested.  The police put handcuff on you and take you to the police station, where you are “booked” and then either held in custody to go to court or released and allowed to show up to court on your own.  If you are arrested during hours when the courts are in session, you will usually be brought to court by the police to be arraigned. When someone is arrested after court hours, the police will call a bail clerk to the station and the clerk will set the amount of bail you have to post in order to be released. If you fail to show up to court when you are supposed to, the bail is “forfeited” and whoever posted the bail loses it.


Sometimes, rather than arresting someone, the police will seek a summons from the court.  A summons is an order issued by the clerk’s office telling you to show up at court for a clerk’s hearing or an arraignment. If you don’t show up when ordered, a warrant will issue for your 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. At that point you will be mailed a Summons to appear for Arraignment on the new criminal charge.


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 after someone is arrested, and the prosecutors will go before a grand jury and get an indictment to move the case to Superior Court.  Once an indictment is obtained, the person is arraigned in Superior Court and the District Court Complaint is dismissed.

Additional Resources: