Criminal Court Procedure in Massachusetts

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What are the Stages of a Criminal Case in Massachusetts?

Criminal cases in Massachusetts progress through several procedural stages, beginning with the initiation of criminal charges and ending, if need be, in a trial.  Massachusetts has 20 Superior Courts and 63 District Courts, but the stages of a criminal case will be substantially the same in each court.

A criminal charge can be brought in a few different ways.  Most crimes begin in District Court with an "application for a criminal complaint" filed by the police or private individual in the district court clerk's office.  If you are arrested, the police will file for the criminal complaint immediately and you will be brought before the court at the earliest opportunity (or bailed from the police station to appear the next court day).   If you were not arrested, you may receive a notice for a Clerk Magistrate Hearing, which is a hearing to determine whether the criminal charges will issue.

If the case is a serious felony, it may be presented to a grand jury and, if an indictment issues, the District Court case is dismissed and the case is handled in Superior Court (you can also be indicted without a District Court case, but the prosecution will usually charge you in the District Court in order to impose conditions of release).

Both the Complaint in District Court and the Indictment in Superior Court serve to present you with the charges and potential penalties you are facing.

Either way, the stages of a criminal case in Massachusetts case will proceed generally as follows:


An arraignment is the first step in the criminal process of being formally charged with a crime and the first time that a criminal defendant appears in court for that charge.   Arraignment may include a bail hearing or a dangerousness hearing.


The pretrial hearing is usually held within 6-8 weeks after the arraignment.   By this time, the district attorney should have provided some discovery, including basic materials such as police reports, photos, recordings and both you and your attorney should have a better idea of the evidence against you and the strategy going forward.  It's possible that the case could be resolved by a plea on this date, but that is unique to every case.  Depending on your case, there could be more than one pretrial hearing date.


At the pretrial conference, your attorney and the prosecutor will meet to discuss the status of the case, including outstanding discovery and possible motions to dismiss or suppress, and, to the extent possible, agree on certain trial issues.  The judge will want to know what needs to be done on the case, whether the court will have t resolve any outstanding discovery or dispositive issues, and details about the length of the trial.   Your attorney and the district attorney will file a pretrial conference report.


Often, all of the discovery issues cannot be resolved by agreement and the defendant will have to file a motion to ask the judge for an order compelling the government to produce certain discovery.  If so, the discovery motion will be filed and a date set for argument.

It may also be appropriate to file a "motion to suppress" based upon a constitutional or procedural violation or a " motion to dismiss" if we don't think that enough evidence has been produced to support the charges.  The will also require a hearing and may require live witness testimony.


This is the date on which the prosecutor has to "comply" with their discovery obligations and the defendant "elects" whether his or her trial will be in front of a judge or jury and a trial date is picked.


This is the date that your trial is scheduled to begin.  Assume it will go that day, but also understand that, particularly in the District Court, it may get bounced by another case.  Superior Court trial dates are far more solid and likely to be adhered to.

Free Consultation on Any Massachusetts Criminal Charges

If you would like to speak about your case and get an expert opinion, please call or text us at any time.  We will listen to the facts of your case, address your concerns and let you know what your options are.

The initial consultation is free and there is no pressure to hire.  If you choose to hire us, we will give you a reasonable quote and we can discuss payment options.

Some related content...

Criminal Defense FAQ

We Hope This Helps!

As a criminal defense lawyer, the fact that you clicked this accordion drives me crazy!

NO, you shouldn't! At least not without a lawyer after careful consideration.

Think about it. The police have a job, which is to solve crimes and bring criminal charges. The only reason for them to call you is because they are looking for evidence and there is no better evidence than your statement. Very often, they are calling you because they don't have enough evidence to charge you yet and they're looking to make their case with your statements.

They are not your friends. They are not trying to help you. There is nothing to "clear up". They will not go away if you just admit it and take responsibility.

Seriously, don't speak to the police without consulting a criminal defense lawyer first. It may be that we ultimately decide to give a statement, but only if it will help your case and after careful consideration!

First, unless you have committed a very serious crime, the chances of you going to jail are minimal (especially if you hire a good attorney). In any event, this is not something that typically would happen until many months down the road.

We're not going to lie to you, if the prosecution can meet the burden of proof on your case, there will be consequences, ranging from a slap on the wrist to jail time. Our job is to minimize the consequences and to eliminate them, if possible.

Of course, this depends on the charges, your criminal history and many other factors, so please feel free to reach out and we can give you a more specific answer.

No, no, no, no no! Even if you decide to eventually take responsibility, your lawyer should negotiate the best deal possible. What this means depends entirely the circumstances of your criminal charge, but very often you can take responsibility and still avoid a permanent criminal record. It may also involve:

  • Pre-Trial Probation or Pre-Trial Diversion
  • An outright Dismissal of your charges upon payment of court costs
  • A Continuation Without a Finding, including the length and terms of your probation (after which the case is dismissed)
  • A period of straight probation without a jail or state prison sentence
  • A suspended sentence, where a sentence is imposed, but not served unless probation is violated
  • A lesser sentence to jail or prison and less severe conditions upon release

This is to say nothing of the fact that your case may be winnable on a motion to dismiss or at trial!

In many cases, yes. Some cases have issues that may justify a Motion to Suppress or a Motion to Dismiss for lack of evidence.

Others can and should be taken to trial, or call for a plea as soon as possible so the client can move on with their life.

The decision on what to do really depends on the facts of the case and your individual goals.

This is why it is important to speak to an experienced Massachusetts criminal attorney who can quickly evaluate your specific case to see if there are any issues worth pursuing.

Related Content:

Strategy and Potential Issues in Massachusetts Criminal Cases

It is very possible that you can avoid a criminal record, especially if you don't have a significant criminal history and and it is a relatively minor offense.

The answer to this question is very case-specific, depending on the facts of your case and what we decide to do with it.

A vast majority of our criminal cases cases are handled on a flat fee basis, ranging from a clerk-magistrate's hearing to superior court or federal court cases.

All we can tell you is that we are always up front and honest, and will treat you fairly. We're also willing to work with you on payments if we can, as this is not all about the money.

Of course, it is prefereable to have an attorney at the arraignment, but don't panic! First, you can call or text me at any time and I may be able to be there. If not, take a look at this link for all the information you need:

Arraignment in Massachusetts – What You Need to Know.

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