Clerk-Magistrate Hearings

Most people think that when you’re charged with a crime, it happens only one way: You’re arrested by the police, handcuffed, and brought into court to be charged with whatever crime you’re accused of. That’s very often the case, but not always. There are other ways a person can be charged with a crime in Massachusetts.

One of the alternative ways that a person can be charged with a Massachusetts misdemeanor crime, is via a Clerk-Magistrate’s hearing – also referred to as a “Massachusetts Clerk’s Hearing” or “Massachusetts Show-Cause Hearing”. This hearing can either follow a police arrest, or not. In most cases, a person will receive a notice via regular mail from the Clerk’s office of a Massachusetts District Court, in which he or she is asked to appear at a scheduled Show-Cause hearing at that court. Because these notices arrive in the mail, many people think that the hearing is “no big deal” – just a trip down to the local courthouse, for a minor, routine matter. This is not true – at all. These hearings present often enormous legal risks to the person accused in the complaint, and they require the counsel of an experienced Massachusetts criminal defense attorney.

The notice and the hearing are scheduled because someone – usually but not always a police department – has filed with the Clerk of the District Court what is known as an “Application for Criminal Complaint,” in which allegations are made that a person has committed a certain crime(s). These offenses are commonly for misdemeanor offenses such as assault and battery, drug possession, or motor vehicle violations, such as leaving the scene of an accident or even drunk driving/OUI. The hearing is held before the Clerk-Magistrate or an Assistant Clerk-Magistrate of the court, who hears testimony from the Complaint applicant (the party seeking to have the accused formally charged with a crime(s) and the “respondent” – the person who is accused of committing the crime(s). At this stage of the process, the “respondent” is not yet a criminal defendant – but will become one if formal criminal charges are ultimately filed against him or her, following the hearing.

What happens at the Show-Cause Hearing?

The party that has accused you of committing a crime (the “complainant” - whether a police department, another person, or a business) will appear to describe their version of the incident that is the subject of the complaint. Since the party bringing the Complaint is commonly a police department, a police officer who is known as a “police prosecutor” usually appears to read the contents of the Criminal Complaint application. The complaining party is entitled to call witnesses to offer testimony in support of the application. As the Respondent, you will have the right and opportunity to testify to your version of events. However, depending on the background circumstances of the incident, your attorney may or may not advise against this. Even if you do not testify, your attorney will determine how specific questions are responded to. Unlike normal courtroom proceedings before a judge, the content and testimony of this hearing are usually not recorded, and the normal rules of evidence are suspended (meaning evidence that might typically be excluded before a judge or jury, such as hearsay evidence, would be allowed in a Clerk-Magistrate’s hearing.)

After the Clerk-Magistrate has heard testimony from both the Complainant and the Respondent, he or she will determine if probable cause exists to support the allegations contained in the Complaint. If he or she determines that the standard of evidence has been satisfied (that is, if he or she believes the Complainant’s version of the incident) the complaint will be granted and formal criminal charges will be filed against you. In some cases, particularly if the Respondent has no prior criminal record or prior history with the court, the Clerk-Magistrate may decide to “hold” the Complaint for a specified period of time, after which, assuming the Respondent has not re-appeared before the court on additional allegations, the Complaint may be administratively dismissed. The effect of this administrative dismissal is the same as a finding in your favor: No charges issue against you, and no criminal record will result.

Remember, the sole purpose of the hearing is for the Clerk to determine whether or not sufficient evidence is presented to grant the application – in other words, to charge the respondent formally with the offenses alleged. Because of this, this hearing represents the best and last chance for a person accused of committing a Massachusetts crime, to avoid being formally charged before the court with that crime. Because of this, if you are called to a Massachusetts Show Cause hearing you should contact an experienced Boston/Dedham Massachusetts Show Cause hearings attorney to learn of your specific legal challenges and options.

Clerk-Magistrate HearingsWhy You Need An Attorney To Represent You At A Clerk’s Hearing

Very importantly, you need to understand what “sufficient evidence,” referred to in the paragraph immediately above, means in the context of a Clerk’s hearing, and what the standard of evidence is, that is employed at this hearing. Without getting into great detail about the complex law of evidence, it is important to understand that the “standard of evidence” employed by the Clerk in this hearing, is the lowest standard used in the law – “Probable Cause.” “Probable Cause” contrasts starkly with the highest standard of legal evidence, which is (as most people with a TV set know) “Beyond a reasonable doubt.” That standard, of course, requires the fact finder – jury or judge – to be morally certain that the defendant committed the crime of which he or she is accused: Almost zero doubt can be present. “Probable Cause” is almost the extreme opposite: The fact finder (here, the Clerk-Magistrate) need only be persuaded “more likely than not” that the accused committed the crime alleged. It is an extremely liberal, wide-ranging standard. Viewed visually, think of a set of scales, with one side slowly tipping higher than the other. Viewed mathematically, think of 51% vs. 49%.

Do I Need An Attorney With Me at a Clerk’s Hearing?

Yes. In the vast majority of cases, it is not recommended that you attend a Clerk-Magistrate’s hearing without an attorney representing you. One of the main reasons for this is the extremely low standard of evidence referred to above – “Probable Cause.” The party accusing you at such a hearing – and seeking to have you formally charged with a crime – has a very low burden of proof, walking into such a hearing. Whether a police department, a business or another citizen, the party seeking to have you charged with a crime benefits from the Probable Cause standard that the Clerk will apply in the hearing, because the standard of proof is so low. You, as the respondent, don’t enjoy any such benefit. Due to the low standard of evidence being applied, the complaining party doesn’t “have to move heaven and earth,” in essence, to persuade the Clerk that the complaint should issue – i.e., that you should be formally charged with the crime you are accused of. Without an experienced Dedham/Boston Clerk’s hearing attorney by your side, ready to argue the technical nuances of the law which will arise, you will likely find yourself leaving the hearing in more legal trouble than you walked in with.

What Happens If The Clerk Finds In My Favor?

If the Clerk finds in your favor, the complaint is dismissed. There will be no formal criminal charges filed against you. You will have no probation records generated in your name, either. From a public records point of view, it is as if the incident never occurred. You are “free and clear.”

What Happens If The Clerk Finds Against Me? Does That Mean I’ve Been Found Guilty?

A finding of Probable Cause at the Clerk’s hearing means that the Clerk has been satisfied that, more likely than not, you have committed the crime that you have been accused of. The Clerk’s finding is not a final guilty finding, but a determination that at this stage the matter should be referred to the District Attorney for prosecution and trial, if necessary. Formal guilt or innocence will be determined later, as the matter is moved toward prosecution. If the Clerk enters a finding of Probable Cause, the respondent will be formally charged with the crime(s) he is accused of – and this is the stage where legal damage begins to accrue against you. This is so because, while being charged with a Massachusetts crime is not a final determination that you are guilty of that crime(s), two immediate legal consequences flow from merely being charged with a crime, at all: 1) A formal, public record that you have been charged with a crime is generated with the court. It stays on your record, even if the charge is later dismissed, and removing it after the fact is a complex and expensive legal process. 2) A formal Probation Department record is generated under your name (this is otherwise known as a “BOP Record,” for Board of Probation.) A Probation record under your name is generated because anyone arraigned on a criminal charge in Massachusetts must immediately register with the Probation Department inside the court where he or she is arraigned. Both of the above records are public documents, meaning anyone, including existing or potential employers, could find these records. If you can avoid it at all, you don’t want this to happen.

Obviously, the best legal outcome possible at the Clerk’s hearing is to have the complaint against you dismissed. If this outcome can be achieved, it will be as if the incident never occurred. Anyone running a background check, including potential employers, will never learn about it. The sooner you contact a Boston/Dedham criminal defense attorney, the sooner we can begin defending you, and doing everything possible to clear your name.

If you are charged, the formal charge occurs at an arraignment, which is where the person accused – previously known as the “respondent” – now formally becomes the criminal defendant. At arraignment, the defendant appears before a judge, to formally enter a plea of not guilty or guilty. Bail may or may not be argued by the District Attorney’s office at arraignment, depending on the surrounding facts of the matter and the defendant’s prior criminal record and probation history. Following arraignment, the case proceeds through the normal tracking for case prosecution at the District Court level.

Hence, it is obvious that if called to a Massachusetts Clerk’s hearing/Massachusetts Show Cause hearing, it is at this hearing where you must utilize all the legal resources that you can bring to bear, to avoid being found against at the hearing, and resultantly, formally charged with a crime. If the Clerk finds against you and you are formally charged, there will be a public record that you were charged with a crime, and you will also have a Probation Department record under your name. As stated above, these are not records that you were found guilty of committing any Massachusetts crimes. However, even if you are later acquitted of the charge(s) (found not guilty,) there will always be a public record that you were charged. And trust me, that just doesn’t look good. Many employment applications ask if you have ever been “charged” with a crime. While you can always truthfully say, if you are ultimately acquitted, “I was found not guilty,” people may still raise their eyebrows, or silently wonder if you “got off on a technicality,” but nonetheless really did commit the crime you were charged with.

Trust me, if you’ve been called to a Massachusetts Clerk’s hearing or Show Cause hearing, do not take any chances, or skimp on spending money at this stage. This hearing represents a person’s best chance to avoid being charged with a Massachusetts crime. If you are found against at this stage, it will only cost you more in fees for a trained Massachusetts criminal defense attorney to defend you once the District Attorney’s office formally prosecutes you.

Our office has very successfully handled literally hundreds of Massachusetts Clerk’s hearings/Show Cause hearings. We know how to take advantage of each and every legal maneuver and procedural technique available in your defense. The odds against respondents at Clerk’s hearings are not good, due to the low standard of evidence that favors the complainant. However, by hiring an experienced Massachusetts Clerk’s hearing attorney, you can increase your chances for success – and that is precisely what you should be doing at this stage. Each percentage point of odds that you can raise in your favor, represents what you should be striving for. Our approaches and legal methods are several, and will almost certainly include legal techniques and strategies that you would be unaware of and unskilled at. These techniques may include developing key weaknesses in the complainant’s case, for use at trial in your defense should the complaint be granted. This is crucially important, regardless of what the Clerk decides at the hearing, since these legal weaknesses might, in some circumstances, be used to convince the District Attorney’s office to dismiss the case or lower the charges.

If you or someone you care about is facing a Massachusetts Clerk-Magistrate’s hearing, you’re at a critical legal stage. Don’t take chances. We know what’s at stake in these hearings. Contact us for a free legal consultation. We can outline the particular legal challenges that you face, and what your legal options are. We answer calls to our office or to attorney Kickham’s cell phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you are facing a clerk magistrate hearing, then contact us for your free initial consultation.

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