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Leonardo Angiulo: Criminal Justice—What The TV Shows Leave Out

Monday, May 27, 2013

 

There are more movies and TV shows about the criminal justice system than is polite to admit. What never seems to make the cut is the real world application process for criminal complaints. I suppose it's because paperwork and conversational tones don't make for suspenseful television. Whatever the reason, the fact is that in the real world, almost every criminal case begins with forms and witness statements presented with without any theme music at all.

As a preliminary matter, there are two divisions of the trial court of the Commonwealth where criminal actions will be heard. First is the District Court. These are typically smaller courts whose jurisdiction will include several neighboring towns. The second is the Superior Court. Superior Courts are organized by region and hold exclusive jurisdiction over serious matters including cases like murder, rape and arson. Given the sheer volume of cases the District Courts handle, and the comparably mild nature of some of them, the average citizen is more likely to face charges there.

In District Court, a complaint usually begins with an application filed by an investigating police officer. This application includes a statement of facts signed under the pains and penalties of perjury. That statement of facts is supposed to include evidence meeting each one of the elements of each one of the crimes charged. Along with that statement of facts is a request that charges should issue as well as a list of suggested charges. What charges to request are in the discretion of the police. Whether a person should be charged, and what those charges should be, is in the discretion of the magistrate reviewing the application. This is true whether the defendant has been arrested or not.

When a defendant has not been arrested, however, there is an opportunity for the accused to challenge the issuance of a complaint at what is called a “show cause hearing.” The statutory provisions for this hearing mandate an opportunity for parties out of police custody to be heard in their own defense. Unless, of course, the accused presents an imminent threat of causing bodily injury, committing another crime before a show cause hearing can be held or there is an imminent risk the accused will flee the Commonwealth. At a show cause hearing a representative of the prosecuting agency, a representative of the judiciary as well as the defendant appear at a designated time to present, consider and challenge the evidence. This event can also be an opportunity for defense attorneys to hear evidence, sometimes for the first time, and present defenses. While the person filing the complaint has the burden to present evidence, the accused has the same rights to remain silent afforded by the constitutions that are available from the informal start of an investigation straight through to trial.

Section 3:01 of the Massachusetts District Court complaint standards states that the primary objective of the complaint procedure in non-arrest cases is to determine whether to authorize the prosecution of the accused. That same section states this procedure may also be used for the informal resolution of conflicts if done in a manner consistent with the primary objective of the complaint procedure. As always, the magistrate conducting a hearing functions as an impartial reviewer and exercises independent judgment when making a decision.

While the road to a complaint follows a well mapped route, the facts of a particular case are as unique as the frost heaves in the street you grew up on. The good news is that while you cannot control the outcome, our courts assiduously follow the correct procedures and you are guaranteed a fair hearing.

Leonardo Angiulo is an Attorney with the firm of Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski in Worcester handling legal matters across the Commonwealth. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or through the firm's website at www.gskandglaw.com.

 

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