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What is a Massachusetts Clerk Magistrate's Hearing?

A Clerk Magistrate's Hearing is a great opportunity to prevent an accused person from having a criminal record. If you have been given notice of a Clerk Magistrate's Hearing, it is important you reach out to an experienced Massachusetts Criminal Defense lawyer. A Clerk Magistrate's Hearing is also known as a "show cause hearing." A Clerk Magistrate's Hearing is done informally in a private room at one of the Massachusetts District Courts. There is a member of the police department known as a police prosecutor at this hearing, and you have the opportunity to be represented by an attorney. Attorney David Ellison has represented clients at numerous Clerk Magistrate's Hearings all throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

What is the Clerk Magistrate Looking for at the Show Cause Hearing? 

At the hearing, the Clerk Magistrate's primary role is to determine whether probable cause exists to require the accused to answer to a criminal charge formally in District Court. However, Magistrates may decline to authorize complaints where the law allows the conflict to be fairly resolved in a different manner. In Gordon v. Fay, 382 Mass. 64, 69-70, 413 N.E.2d 1094, 1097-1098 (1980), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court noted that the “implicit purpose of the [G.L. c. 218, §] 35A hearings is to enable the court clerk to screen a variety of minor criminal or potentially criminal matters out of the criminal justice system through a combination of counseling, discussion, or threat of prosecution.”

A person accused of committing a misdemeanor (a crime that does not have a state prison sentence associated with it) is generally entitled to an opportunity to be heard in opposition to the issuance of the complaint at a Clerk Magistrate's Hearing.

This requirement does not apply (1) if the accused has been under arrest with these allegations (2) if there is an accompanying felony charge, (3) if the application for complaint is denied, or (4) if the Magistrate decides that there is an imminent threat of bodily injury, commission of a crime, or flight from the Commonwealth by the accused person.

There are certain circumstances when a felony can be heard at a Clerk Magsistrate's Hearing. 

What is Probable Cause at a Clerk Magistrate's Hearing? 

The Clerk Magistrate's most important decision is whether or not probable cause exists to issue the complaint on the charges applied for.

First, the Clerk Magistrate must determine that there is probable cause that a crime has been committed.

Second, the Clerk Magistrate must determine there is probable cause that the accused committed the crime.

Probable Cause is generally considered a low standard of proof. “Probable cause exists where . . . the facts and circumstances within the knowledge of the [magistrate] are enough to warrant a prudent person in believing that the individual . . . has committed . . . an offense . . . . Probable cause is a relatively low threshold, requiring only sufficiently trustworthy information to instill in a reasonable person the requisite belief of criminality.” Paquette v. Commonwealth, 440 Mass. 121, 132, 795 N.E.2d 521, 531-532 (2003).

The Magistrate should determine whether probable cause exists after hearing the full statement from the complainant. “The complainant need only present a statement of accusation which in the eyes of the magistrate is complete in terms of the elements of the crime and reasonably believable in terms of its allegations.” Commonwealth v. DiBennadetto, 436 Mass. 310, 314, 764 N.E.2d 338, 342 (2002).

What is the Strategy for a Clerk Magistrate's Hearing?

If you can prevent a complaint from issuing at this show cause hearing, then the person accused will not have a criminal record of the charges because they were never arraigned formally in District Court. This is why it is so important to handle these in a proper way. The statements you make can be used against you, which is why it is so important to have an attorney speak on your behalf. Attorney David Ellison does his own investigation prior to representing a person at a Clerk Magistrate's Hearing. He also has the opportunity to summons in witnesses to appear and testify at the hearing. 

There are, generally speaking, two types of strategies for a Clerk Magistrate's Hearing (although every case deserves its own unique strategy).

1) Challenge Probable Cause 

If you can prove to the Clerk Magistrate that there is no probable cause of a crime being committed, then you can block the complaint from issuing. This may be done by either showing some facts and circumstances that no crime was committed or the police have the wrong person for the alleged crime. It can also be shown by making a legal argument by citing existing case law and statutes that the alleged conduct was not criminal. 

2) Prevent a Complaint from Issuing Based on Certain Conditions 

Many times at a Clerk Magistrate's Hearing, you can come to an agreement with the police and/or the Clerk Magistrate on conditions the Defendant will fulfill that would prevent a criminal complaint from issuing. In this scenario, we would offer conditions like community service, attendance on drug counseling, payments of court costs, or some other appropriate conditions along with the condition that the person will stay out of trouble for some time. The Clerk Magistrate will then continue the hearing for some time to give the Defendant an opportunity to fulfill the conditions and stay out of trouble. If, on the date of the continuance, the Defendant has fulfilled these conditions, the Clerk Magistrate will agree to not issue the complaint. 

What Law Allows for a Clerk Magistrate's Hearing?  

Massachusetts General Laws c. 218, § 35A states the following, "If a complaint is received by a district court, or by a justice, associate justice or special justice thereof, or by a clerk, assistant clerk, temporary clerk or temporary assistant clerk thereof under section 32, 33 or 35, as the case may be, the person against whom such complaint is made, if not under arrest for the offense for which the complaint is made, shall, in the case of a complaint for a misdemeanor or a complaint for a felony received from a law enforcement officer who so requests, and may, in the discretion of any said officers in the case of a complaint for a felony which is not received from a law enforcement officer, be given an opportunity to be heard personally or by counsel in opposition to the issuance of any process based on such complaint unless there is an imminent threat of bodily injury, of the commission of a crime, or of flight from the commonwealth by the person against whom such complaint is made. The court or said officers referred to above shall consider the named defendant's criminal record and the records contained within the statewide domestic violence record keeping system maintained by the office of the commissioner of probation in determining whether an imminent threat of bodily injury exists" 

If you receive notice of a Clerk Magistrate's Hearing, contact Attorney David Ellison today.  Call David today at 401-230-5520. 

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