What to Expect In District Court
This is a general outline of what to expect if you are charged with a crime in Massachusetts district court:
Arraignment — An arraignment is your first court appearance after an arrest or summons. The arraignment date is the date when you are formally “charged” with the crime that you have allegedly committed; this is the first date that an entry will be made on your criminal record (CORI). In District Court a “not guilty” plea will enter automatically. At the arraignment the judge will ask you what you are going to do about a lawyer: hire a private attorney, use a public defender, or represent yourself. If you are hiring your own counsel, the Court will give you a new date for a pre-trial hearing.
Bail — for some offenses, you will be able to “post” bail at the police station, and be released with the understanding that you appear at your arraignment. If you do not post bail at the police station, the Commonwealth may request a bail amount at the Arraignment. Depending on the type of crime you are accused of, and your own criminal history, the bail may be a monetary amount, or you may be released on personal recognizance (your promise to appear). There is also a chance with the most serious allegations, that the Court will not set a bail and you will be jailed until the first pre-trial hearing.
Pre-trial Hearing — At the first pre-trial hearing, counsel is expected to conference the case with the Commonwealth, discuss items of discovery (information/evidence that should be exchanged pursuant to the Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure). After the pre-trial conference report is submitted to the Court, if the case is not yet resolved, the Court will set a Compliance & Election date. By the Compliance & Election date the parties should have exchanged discovery. The defendant may file motions for additional discovery, motions to suppress and/or dismiss. If there are no motions, and no plea, the parties will proceed to trial.
Trial — Once the pre-trial issues are resolved, the case will be set for a trial. In district court, the vast majority of cases do not reach this stage. Many cases are dismissed or decriminalized. Many other cases resolve when the defendant enters into a “plea agreement.” A plea can be entered at any point in the proceeding – from arraignment through trial. Assuming the case is not resolved at an earlier stage, on the trial date, the defendant can ask that his/her case be heard by either a judge or a jury. At trial, the prosecutor will present evidence suggesting the defendant is guilty of the crime charged. The Commonwealth bears the burden of proof and must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant is guilty. The defendant has no burden to present any evidence on his behalf, though he/she has every right to call witnesses and cross-examine the Commonwealth’s witnesses. After trial, the fact-finder will determine the defendants are guilty or not guilty of the crime you are accused.
Sentencing — If you are found guilty of the crime charged, a “sentence” will be imposed. It may consist of anything from fines or probation to incarceration or a combination of all three.