Criminal Legal Process

The criminal legal process can unexpectedly affect otherwise law abiding citizens for a number of reasons. Frequently these include motor vehicle offense, including accusations of drunk driving, accusations of assault and battery, violating a restraining order, or accusations of violations of drug laws.

The vast majority of criminal cases brought in Massachusetts are brought in the District Court system. The Massachusetts District Courts have jurisdiction over most crimes, and can generally sentence defendants only up to two and a half years in jail on each charge. More serious crimes are handled in the Superior Court, and the following information does not always apply.
If you find yourself accused of a crime, it is imperative to talk to a lawyer immediately, before talking to police. Do not take legal advice from the police.

We present an overview of Massachusetts State District Court criminal process. It then concludes with information applicable in criminal cases to general cases.

The titles of each section in the Criminal Legal Process

  • The Institution of the Criminal Process – Arrest or Summons
  • Procedures in Court
  • Plea Bargaining

This is intended as an overview only. An accused should always consult with a lawyer.

The Institution of the Criminal Process – Arrest or Summons

Criminal cases in the Massachusetts District Court system begin in one of two ways: an arrest , or a summons .

A. Arrest.  In many cases, the criminal process is started by an arrest of the accused by police. What a person does in the course of the arrest, in terms of giving a statement to or otherwise cooperating with police, is very important. In most District Court criminal cases, the entire police investigation is completed within a few hours of the arrest, before the accused even makes an initial court appearance. Statements of witnesses will be taken at the scene. Statements of accused will be taken at the scene, or at the police station following an arrest. It is generally not in an accused’s best interest to make a statement to the police. In many cases, the existence of a statement by an accused can mean the difference between an acquittal and a conviction.

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Procedures in Court

A. Arraignment. Whether the criminal process is begun by an arrest or a summons, the procedure in court begins with the arraignment. The arraignment occurs on the first day the accused appears in court, and in the case of an arrest, is usually the next business day. The accused will be informed of what charges are alleged. Most courts will automatically enter a plea of not guilty on the behalf of the accused. The accused will find out if the government is seeking any bail (even if bail was already set by a bail commissioner at a police station the night before).

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Plea Bargaining

There are a variety of reasons to seek to plea out a case. In some cases, the case is so strong, including a confession by the accused, leaving little alternative but to seek a plea. In other cases, however, there may be advantages to resolving a case short of trial because the deal is a good one that results in no criminal record. Different alternatives are discussed briefly below.

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