If you have never been charged with a crime, the criminal court process can seem very daunting (and confusing). The first appearance before a judge is what’s referred to as an arraignment. Every court is a little different, but generally the most you will have to say if you are represented by a lawyer is “not guilty” or “yes” a couple of times. In some courts, you will not have to say anything because the lawyer will speak for you and a plea of not guilty could be automatically entered on your behalf. If the Assistant District Attorney is requesting bail or conditions of release during the pendency of the case, then that will be argued before the judge as part of the arraignment. An arraignment can last as little as ten seconds to as much as a few minutes in the case of a bail argument.
The next court date is what is referred to as a pretrial conference (or probable cause hearing if your case has a charge in which you can only be prosecuted in the superior court). At a pretrial conference, discovery is exchanged and pretrial motions are argued. Some examples of pretrial motions are motions to dismiss, motions for discovery, or motions for third-party records. A probable cause hearing – when at least one charge carries superior court only jurisdiction – is for charges such as Trafficking, Robbery, Rape, Home Invasion, and Possession with Intent to Distribute Classes A-C, Subsequent Offense. Probable cause hearings are very rare. At such a hearing, the Commonwealth must put on witnesses to satisfy the judge that there is probable cause for the superior court charge. If the judge is satisfied that the Commonwealth has established probable cause, then the case is “bound over”, meaning that it can only proceed to the grand jury for presentation for indictment. Usually, the Commonwealth answers “not ready” for the hearing and either requests further dates for the accused to be indicted and arraigned in superior court or the Commonwealth amends the superior court charge to one which carries district court jurisdiction if the case will remain in district court.
Next, the case receives a discovery compliance and jury election date(s). Oftentimes, the same things occur at a pretrial conference date as at a discovery compliance and jury election hearing. Basically, the case is proceeding towards the selection of a trial date. At any point, the accused could tender a plea. If the case does not resolve and all discovery and motions are completed, then the matter receives a trial date.
The duration of the process is very case/court dependent. Pursuant to Rule 36 of the Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure, a case must be brought to trial within one year. However, there are several provisions for excludable time from the one-year calculation. Every court controls its own docket. How often you return to court for hearings is largely dependent on how busy that court is. In some courts, you could return within a few weeks. In others, it could be two to three months. Remember, every delay, whether in your favor such as a hearing on a motion to suppress evidence or those at the fault of the Commonwealth such as testing not being completed, prolongs the resolution of the case. Generally, if your case proceeds to trial, it will likely be at least four to twelve months after the initial arraignment.