Criminal Court Process Definitions


The state of Massachusetts considers an offense to be a misdemeanor when it does not merit time in state prison. A misdemeanor is a more minor wrongdoing; lower than a felony. It is punishable by a fine, probation and/or county jail time of up to 2 ½ years. It is generally tried in a local “District” or “Municipal” court.

Examples of misdemeanor offenses include: petty theft, disturbing the peace, drunk driving without injury to others, various traffic violations, simple assault and battery.


A felony is a more serious crime, punishable by imprisonment in a state or federal prison. It is generally tried in a state “Superior” court.

Examples of felonies include: murder and attempted murder, rape and sexual assault, treason, arson, armed robbery, manslaughter, drug possession and trafficking and kidnapping.

Grand Jury

An Indictment is required to accuse a person of a crime in the Massachusetts Superior Court. The decision to bring the Indictment is made by the Grand Jury; a group of 23 people chosen to hear evidence and determine whether there is enough to charge someone with a crime. This standard of evidence is also known as “probable cause”.

The Grand Jury meets in secret and is overseen by the District Attorney or prosecutor. Both sworn testimony of witnesses and physical evidence can be presented. Only the jurors, prosecutors and witnesses (sometimes with their attorneys), are present at the hearing. You and your counsel are not present and may not even know the hearing is taking place. You will only receive a transcript of the evidence if the Indictment is issued.

The Grand Jury does not decide guilty or innocence, only whether or not the case will go forward.


This is the document that takes the place of a Complaint in the Superior Court. 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. The grand jury proceeding almost always happens without you knowing about it.

Probable Cause

Probable cause is a standard used in justifying certain police actions. For example, police need to have probable cause to believe evidence of a crime exists in requesting a search warrant to be issued. It is more than mere suspicion but less than the amount of evidence required for conviction. It is also the standard by which grand juries issue criminal indictments.

The probable cause standard is used in criminal law as a basis for searching and arresting persons and depriving them of their liberty. In the criminal proceedings a probable cause is important in two respects. First, police must possess probable cause before they may search a person or a person’s property, and they must possess it before they may arrest a person. Second, in most criminal cases the court must find that probable cause exists to believe that the defendant committed the crime before the defendant may be prosecuted.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has two clauses. The first states that people have a right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the second states that no warrant shall issue except upon probable cause.

Probable Cause Hearing

A Probable Cause Hearing is a hearing held in a criminal case to determine if sufficient evidence exists to prosecute someone accused of a misdemeanor. This hearing is held before a Clerk-Magistrate in District Court. The probable cause hearing must be conducted within 60 days from the date of filing of the complaint or information in Superior Court.

At such a hearing, a Magistrate decides if “probable cause” exists to believe that a crime was committed and that you are the person who committed it. The determination is made based on an officer’s police report and, sometimes, witness testimony. You will be notified of the date, time and place of the hearing by a Summons sent to you from the court Clerk’s office. The only individuals allowed at a show-cause hearing are the police officer who wrote the report, any witnesses that are going to testify, the Magistrate, and you. If you choose to have an attorney there, they will also be allowed in the room to present your defense.


What happens if I am arrested as a young person?

The police officer must identify him or herself as a police officer. You may be searched for a weapon with a pat-down and/or placed in handcuffs.

You cannot be transported in a patrol wagon or cruiser with adult offenders unless you were arrested at the scene of the crime with those adults.

Once at the police station, you will have your arrest photo and fingerprints taken. Your parents or guardians must be informed immediately, as well as a Juvenile Probation Officer.

What are my rights before and during police questioning?

If you are 14 or under, you must have your parent or guardian sit with you during the questioning. If you are between 14 and 17 years old, that person must at least have the chance to talk to you beforehand, to make sure that you understand your Miranda rights. You have the right to remain silent, you have the right to an attorney, and–if you cannot afford one–you will be represented by an attorney appointed by the court. Between the ages of 14 and 17, you may still have a parent or guardian present during questioning. Officers must give you a Miranda warning only if the police subject you to “custodial interrogation,” or “questions initiated by law enforcement after [an individual is] taken into custody.” Therefore, you should know your Miranda rights and privileges against self-incrimination before any interaction with police.

You cannot be put in jail with adult offenders: you should not be able to see or hear them. You also cannot be placed in a holding cell with other juveniles of the opposite gender. If you are under 14, you cannot be put in a cell at all: you should be in a secure room instead.