There are three ways that a criminal case can begin in a Massachusetts District Court against an accused person.
- The police can go out and arrest a person in which case the arrestee is handcuffed, taken into custody, transported to the police station and then are officially brought before the court for an arraignment usually within 24 hours. They are either taken by the police to the courthouse or, in case they are bailed out quickly, they are released and can go to the courthouse under their own power.
- The second way a criminal case to get started is for the court to send out a summons in the mail notifying the person that they have been charged with a crime and informing them of the date they need to show up in court for the arraignment. This is certainly an easier and less traumatic way than being arrested. An arraignment is, essentially, an initial check-in with the court where one is officially informed of the charge, enters a plea of not guilty, can apply for a court-appointed attorney if one is indigent, and then is given a date to come back. If the prosecution requests a defendant be held on bail, this can be argued at a hearing before the judge.
- The third way a criminal case can begin in a Massachusetts District Court is through a summons, not to an arraignment in front of a judge, but to a Clerk’s Hearing, also known as a Show Cause Hearing or a Probable Cause Hearing. This means the person has not actually already been charged, but rather, it will be determined whether that person will be charged. A Clerk’s Hearing is conducted usually for the more minor misdemeanor offenses such as shoplifting, motor vehicle offenses or disputes between people after someone has filled out an application for a criminal complaint. A Clerk’s Hearing is held at the courthouse, but in front of a clerk either in the clerk’s office or in a small courtroom.
What to Expect at a Clerk’s Hearing
The Clerk’s Hearing is a rather informal affair where those speaking must be under oath, but there are almost no formal rules of evidence to follow. It is often a back and forth conversation and questions can be asked of each person speaking. A person can bring an attorney with them and any witnesses who can help them with their case.
The entire point of a Clerk’s Hearing is not to determine guilt or innocence, but just to determine probable cause. Is there enough evidence, at the very least, to at least charge the accused person even if it is not quite clear whether there is enough evidence that will eventually prove his guilt at a trial? If it is determined that there is sufficient probable cause, then one is given a date to come back to court to be officially charged and arraigned in front of a judge.
If the case is dismissed at the Clerk’s Hearing, then the entire matter ends there. If it is dismissed at the Clerk’s Hearing, this is ideal because, in that case, it is not like one was charged and then the case was dismissed. There will not even be an official record that the person was ever even charged. The matter, for most legal purposes, just disappears as if it never existed.
Even if probable cause is found, the clerk conducting the hearing has some discretion to still not issue the criminal complaint. This is why a Clerk’s Hearing might be an ideal place to resolve a matter by, essentially, mediating the dispute if there are opposing parties. The clerk might also let the accused person off with a warning and a lecture particularly if the offense is relatively minor such as a remorseful young person committing a first time shoplifting. The clerk may also find that probable cause exists, but continue the case for a few months or a year or so stating that, as long as the accused person stays out of any more trouble for that period of time, they will then dismiss it. But, in the meanwhile, the case is hanging over one’s head totally dependent on whether the person stays out of trouble for that time. In situations such as this, the court clerk can serve an important function by resolving very minor problems and not clogging up the regular courtroom schedule with small matters such as a dispute between neighbors where an apology might take care of everything.
This is why, if a person is summoned into a Clerk’s hearing where it is to be determined whether probable cause of a crime exists, all is not lost as it is a good place to try to resolve and settle the matter. Although no accused person can ever be forced to hire an attorney in any criminal matter whatsoever and people have even represented themselves when charged with murder, ones chances are greatly enhanced if they are represented by counsel especially at a Clerk’s Hearing where, if the hearing is handled correctly, an accused person may truly get an opportunity to make the case go away with no record of it when they achieve a dismissal.