Overview of Criminal Process

The Beginning

If you are reading this you may already know how easy it is to get into the "criminal process," but you may also find it helpful to have some idea of what typically happens next. This is intended as a sort of map so that you can know where you are and have some idea about what is coming.

The vast majority of criminal prosecutions start with a complaint being filed in the district court for the area where the crime supposedly occurred. That complaint is a simple document listing the crimes the accused is facing. It is issued by a clerk magistrate of the district court after reviewing a sworn application by a police officer. Such a complaint can also be issued on an application by a private citizen. In the case of a citizen's complaint, the magistrate will first conduct a hearing where the accused has an opportunity to ask questions or present evidence. That "clerk's hearing" process was recently the subject of sensationalist coverage in the Boston Globe, which called them "secret courts." They are not a secret at all, but they are a quirk of Massachusetts law. In any case, whether based on an application by the police or a citizen, most criminal cases start with a complaint in a district court.

Whether a case stays in district court depends on the charges. The law divides crimes into two broad categories: felonies and misdemeanors. Most people understand that those terms generally mean "more serious" (felonies) or "less serious" (misdemeanors), but the law itself does not use that language. Legally the two types of crimes are distinguished by the maximum possible sentence. If the maximum penalty is two and one-half years in a county jail then the crime is a misdemeanor. If the maximum penalty is some number of years in state prison it is a felony. The district court has jurisdiction over all misdemeanors and any felonies that can result in a county jail sentence. The laws defining crimes in Massachusetts all specify the maximum penalties and some say something like, "5 years in state prison or two and one-half years in county jail." Those are felonies, but they can be resolved in the district court if the prosecution decides not to seek an indictment. If they do, or if the accused is facing charges that do not have a county jail sentencing option, then the case must move to a superior court in the county where the offense took place.

There are three ways a criminal case can move to or start in superior court. The most common way is for the prosecution to seek a grand jury indictment against someone who has already been charged (and, often, held) in a district court. A grand jury indictment is, ultimately, just another type of complaint. The difference is that instead of being issued by a magistrate it is issued by a grand jury. A grand jury is a jury, such as one sees on courtroom tv dramas, chosen from the people who are summoned to court for jury duty. The difference is a grand jury is assembled by the prosecution for the sole purpose of reviewing evidence and voting on whether there is enough to charge a particular person with whatever felony or felonies the prosecution believes were committed. The grand jury process happens without the supervision of a judge and its proceedings are not public. If a grand jury votes to indict someone being held in the district court that person is arraigned again in superior court and the district court proceedings are dismissed. Grand juries also sometimes issue indictments against persons who have not been charged yet. In that case the accused is arrested and taken to Superior Court directly for arraignment. Rarely an accused may also be simply summoned to appear without an arrest if the prosecutor believes they are likely to show up.

Those two means of getting to Superior Court account for just about all the ways a defendant can end up there. There is, however, a third way that is almost never used. That is a probable cause finding by a district court judge after what we call a "bind over" or "probable cause" hearing. That process is an alternative to a grand jury indictment, but in general, only the defense ever asks for it. It involves a district court judge acting in the grand jury role and conducting a hearing about the evidence in which the defense gets to participate and cross-examine witnesses. The prosecution much prefers to avoid that, and just about always does avoid it one way or the other. But an accused being held in district court on charges the district court cannot keep will often, through counsel, demand such a hearing by way of pressuring the prosecution to act. Eventually, a district court will dismiss felony charges if it concludes the prosecution has taken too much time to get a grand jury to indict. That can feel very gratifying to an accused, though it is usually a short-lived victory. There is nothing stopping a grand jury from indicting someone even after the district court complaint is dismissed.

So depending on the nature of the charges, the conclusion of the first step of the process is to be arraigned in either district or superior court where the accused is told the charges and enters a not guilty plea. And, yes, it is always a not-guilty plea no matter how strong the evidence is and no matter how willing the accused is to admit responsibility. Unless the prosecution and defense have been talking in advance and already have an agreement, the case cannot begin until there is a not-guilty plea. One will be entered for a defendant who refuses to participate or tries to force the judge to sentence them on the spot.