Most people believe that if you have been charged with a crime, a criminal case only begins one way – you are arrested, handcuffed, and brought into court to be charged with a crime. While this is often the case, there are other ways a person can be charged with a crime in the Commonwealth Massachusetts. One of these alternate methods is known as a Clerk-Magistrate’s Hearing.
A Clerk-Magistrate Hearing occurs when a police department, after having investigated a report of criminal activity, files an application with the court for issuance of a criminal complaint.
Purpose of a Clerk-Magistrate Hearing
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The sole purpose of a Clerk-Magistrate Hearing to determine whether there is probable cause to support the offense(s) alleged by the application, which is the legal requirement to charge someone with a crime by criminal complaint. In other words, the hearing is designed to determine if someone should be criminally charged. This important determination is made by a single Clerk-Magistrate, who is not a judge, but a lawyer employed by the court. Clerk-Magistrates have wide latitude and discretion to grant or deny applications for criminal complaints. Therefore, these hearings represent the best chance for a person accused of a crime to prevent the issuance of a criminal complaint and have a case dismissed before it is formally charged in court and turned over for prosecution by the District Attorney’s Office.
In most cases, a Clerk-Magistrate Hearing is afforded to those individuals suspected of committing a misdemeanor crime that was not witnessed first-hand by police.
However, there are also some misdemeanors for which police can place you under arrest, regardless if they witnessed it or not, as opposed to having to apply for issuance of complaint.
Such instances include failure to appear in court, domestic violence misdemeanor, and restraining order violations.
Ineligible for a Clerk-Magistrate Hearing
You are also ineligible for a Clerk-Magistrate Hearing if you were arrested on the charges, suspected or charged with a felony, or the Clerk-Magistrate determines that you are dangerous, likely to injure others, or likely to commit additional crimes.
At the hearing, the applicant is given the opportunity to present their version of events by offering the facts contained in the application for criminal complaint.
The rules of evidence do not apply to these hearings. However, witnesses may be called by the applicant. The respondent then has a right to respond by offering testimony, calling witnesses, presenting evidence in his or her own defense, and having an attorney speak on his or her behalf.
It should be noted that any statements made during this hearing by the respondent may be used against the respondent in later proceedings, such as in connection with a criminal prosecution. Therefore, it is highly advised that respondents retain experienced criminal defense counsel for representation during this process.
After hearing from both sides, the Clerk-Magistrate will determine if probable cause exists to support the allegations set forth in the application for criminal complaint. Probable cause is the standard of proof applied to determine whether formal charges should be issued. This is a very low standard where a Clerk-Magistrate must be persuaded that “more likely than not,” that there exists reason to believe, based on specific and articulable facts, that the accused person committed the crime alleged.
When Probable Cause Is Not Found
If the Clerk-Magistrate finds that probable cause does not exist to support the allegation in the application, the matter is dismissed, and a criminal complaint does not issue. This means there are no criminal charges filed in court, no criminal prosecution and the matter will not appear on the respondent’s criminal record or CORI. From a public records perspective, it will be as if the incident never occurred.
Possible Outcomes When Probable Cause Is Found
If, alternatively, the Clerk-Magistrate finds probable cause, there are a few possible outcomes. One outcome is that the application for a criminal complaint is granted, charges are formally filed, and the defendant is prosecuted in the criminal justice system by the District Attorney’s Office.
A second outcome is that the Clerk-Magistrate, in an exercise of discretion, elects not to authorize the criminal complaint based on mitigating and/or extenuating circumstances presented by the respondent and/or defense counsel. A third outcome is that the complaint is not issued providing the respondent complies with certain conditions imposed by the Clerk-Magistrate such as payment of restitution, attendance of counseling, performance of community service, or otherwise.
As discussed above, a Clerk-Magistrate Hearing is a uniquely important opportunity to avoid criminal prosecution. If you have received a summons to appear for such a hearing, call the Law Office of John L. Calcagni III, Inc. today at (508) 213-9113 for a free consultation. We have a proven track record, spanning more than a decade, of successfully defeating applications for criminal complaints throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Let us help you!