What You Need to Know as the Defendant

What You Need to Know as the Defendant

What happens if I have been charged with a crime?

It is important to know the difference between civil infractions, misdemeanors and felonies. A civil infraction is a minor violation such as a traffic violation or simple possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. If you are found responsible of a civil infraction, your punishment is most often a fine.

Misdemeanors are crimes that are not punishable under Massachusetts’ statutes by confinement in a State prison. Felonies are crimes which are punishable under Massachusetts’ statutes by confinement in a State prison. To find out whether your charge is a civil infraction, a misdemeanor or a felony, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney to look at your charging document to give you a definitive answer and some peace of mind. Please call Rakhlin Law at 617-564-0466 to get this vital information.

Show Cause Hearing

If you are accused of committing a misdemeanor crime and you are not arrested, you are generally entitled to a “show cause hearing.” This hearing is held before a district court clerk magistrate to determine if there is probable cause to believe you committed a crime. The magistrate will determine, after speaking with you and your lawyer, if there is sufficient evidence to issue a complaint. If the clerk magistrate finds probable cause, a complaint will be issued and you will be given an arraignment date. This is a VERY important opportunity to prevent the creation of a criminal record which will forever be something that affects your life.

What is an Arraignment Date?

Your arraignment date is the first time that you, as a criminal defendant, appear in court for your case. The purpose of the arraignment is to inform you of the charges, begin the criminal case against you, and determine what conditions will be imposed on your liberty during the duration of your case to ensure that you return to court (possible cash bail) and that the community/alleged victim are safe (stay away orders, GPS bracelets, etc). There are limited times when your case may be able to be resolved at arraignment. These instances usually involve minor infractions and would require speaking with an experienced criminal defense attorney beforehand to understand how resolving your case would/would not benefit you. If you cannot reach an agreement with the District Attorney, you have the right to proceed to a trial.

What should I expect to happen on my arraignment date?

On your arraignment date you should dress in business attire, as you would when going to an important job interview. This shows respect for the court and the process. You should plan to be at court for at least three hours. If the court is particularly crowded on that day, you may be required to stay until the court closes at 4:30pm. It is important to be on time, or early, so you have enough time to get situated and to not miss your name being called in the courtroom. It is also important to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney before your first court date so that he can have all of the facts necessary to secure the best conditions of release as possible.

When you enter the building for your arraignment, you will go first to the probation office so that the Court can gather your biographical information and run your criminal record. You will then have an intake interview with a probation officer, which must be completed before you are arraigned. You will then go to the courtroom where your arraignment will be held. When court starts, the judge will enter and sit on the bench at the front of the room. Listen for your name to be called, and then you will be asked to approach the Judge with your lawyer by your side. When your name is called, a court officer will direct you and your lawyer to the front of the courtroom to stand while your charges are read out loud. An experienced criminal defense lawyer will have evaluated your case prior to your arraignment, and may even have some motions to file at or before this initial hearing. While this is undoubtedly a difficult moment, it is important to control your emotions and address the judge as “Your Honor” with the respect owed to this important position.

Who are the people in the courtroom?

Defendant: The person charged with a crime. This person faces the full weight and resources of the Commonwealth being used to secure his/her conviction.
Pro se defendant: A person charged with a crime who chooses to represent himself or herself without a lawyer. This is a big mistake, as this person does not have the tools needed to make the right strategic decisions.

Defense Attorney: The person representing the defendant accused of a crime. A good criminal defense attorney is an expert in both the law and the court system, allowing him to get the best results for his clients.

Prosecutor: The person representing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts who works for the District Attorney of the County in which the case is being heard. This person is not your friend and is not there to advocate for your interests.

Court Officer: A person in uniform similar to that of a police officer who is in charge of keeping order in the court. These individuals can give you information as to individuals held in custody at the courthouse.

Clerk Magistrate: The person who keeps the record of the court session and makes sure that the session runs in an orderly manner. The Judge relies heavily on the Clerk to assist them in the administration of justice.

Judge: The person presiding over the hearing to make sure rules and procedures are followed and ensure justice is achieved. The judge has the final authority for decisions regarding sentences and bails. If a trial has no jury, the judge will perform the jury’s functions.

Jury: The group of people randomly chosen from the community to weigh the facts of a trial and decide guilt or innocence of the defendant.

Probation officer: A person who is part of the trial court and will track a defendant’s compliance with court orders and report any and all information to the judge.

It is important to know that court staff cannot give you legal advice. Only your lawyer can provide you with the legal advice you need to secure a positive outcome.

Pre-Trial Hearing

If your case is not resolved at arraignment (most cases are not) then your next court date will be your pre-trial conference date. Generally at a pre-trial conference, the case is either resolved or prepared for trial. Motions are litigated, discovery is provided, and possible pleas are discussed. A defendant must be tried within one year after the arraignment date. The time limit may be extended due to continuances or other factors which an experienced criminal defense attorney can explain to you.


Defendants in criminal cases have the right to have a jury of their peers decide their guilt or innocence. Before trial, the defendant needs to decide whether he or she would like to have a jury trial or a bench trial, where a judge decides without a jury. Anyone accused of a crime is presumed to be innocent under the law until and unless they plead guilty or are proven guilty at trial. It is the prosecutor who has to convince a jury or judge that the defendant is guilty. He or she must do so by providing evidence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

When you are charged with a crime your freedom, your job, and your future is on the line. As soon as you know that you are being summoned to court or after you have been arrested it is imperative that you have a seasoned and thoughtful criminal defense attorney by your side to help you navigate the pitfalls of the criminal justice system.