Criminal Complaint Hearings
Rankin & Sultan frequently represents clients facing an application for a criminal complaint in a Massachusetts District Court or the Boston Municipal Court. When such an application has been filed, the court will generally schedule a “show cause” hearing before a Clerk-Magistrate to decide whether or not a formal criminal complaint will issue. Many people believe that they should go to such a hearing without a lawyer and represent themselves. In our experience, that is a huge mistake! This hearing represents a critical opportunity for our client to try to avoid criminal charges altogether. If we are successful in convincing the Clerk-Magistrate not to issue a criminal complaint, our client’s record will remain clean, and our client will avoid the expense, stress, and risk of defending against formal criminal charges. Thus, while “show cause” hearings are informal in nature, they should be taken seriously since they afford many of our clients a real opportunity to avoid criminal charges. Even where a criminal complaint issues, the hearing provides an important opportunity to discover and test the inculpatory evidence.
Show-cause hearings generally take place in a small office or conference room, not a courtroom. You have the right to be present, present evidence, and to bring witnesses or relevant documents. In cases where we believe there is a real possibility of avoiding the issuance of a criminal complaint, we will put together a package of materials to be submitted to the Clerk-Magistrate at the hearing and often to the police officer who will be present, as well. Such a package may include character letters, expert input, and other favorable information about our client’s background. In cases where it appears highly likely that a criminal complaint will issue, the show cause hearing may enable us to obtain information and to pin down prosecution witnesses in a manner which may prove highly beneficial at trial.
The standard of proof required for the issuance of a criminal complaint at a show cause hearing is quite low– probable cause to believe that the accused has committed a crime. As a legal matter, the testimony of a single witness (usually the complainant) is sufficient to meet that low standard. However, the Clerk-Magistrate has considerable discretion in whether or not to issue a criminal complaint, even where the probable cause standard has been met. At the end of the hearing, the Clerk-Magistrate will decide whether to: (1) issue a criminal complaint; (2) dismiss the application for the complaint; or (3) hold the application for a specified period of time, after which the application will be dismissed if no further issues arise.
While every case is unique, we have had frequent success in convincing the Clerk-Magistrate not to issue a criminal complaint against our client. Where we have achieved that outcome, it has generally followed the submission of a persuasive package of materials to both the Clerk-Magistrate and any police officer participating in the hearing. In our experience, police officers frequently work closely with Clerk-Magistrates at these proceedings, and their input is critical to the outcome in many cases.