Massachusetts Criminal Justice System
The criminal justice system in Massachusetts is comprised of both trial and appellate courts. Trial courts are where factual disputes are resolved and a defendant’s guilt or innocence is determined. Appellate courts review decisions of trial courts for mistakes or errors. Generally speaking, a party dissatisfied with the decision of a trial court can appeal the decision to an appellate court. The appeals court may approve the trial court findings; overrule, disapprove or overturn them; or send the case back down to the trial court for it to conduct additional fact finding.
The trial courts in Massachusetts consist of the District and Superior Courts. The Superior Courts are grouped into 14 counties: Barnstable, Berkshire, Bristol, Dukes, Essex, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire, Middlesex, Nantucket, Norfolk, Plymouth, Suffolk and Worcester. Each county also has a number of District Courts. Barnstable County consists of the Barnstable, Falmouth and Orleans District Courts; Berkshire County consists of the Southern Berkshire, Northern Berkshire, and Pittsfield District Courts; Bristol County consists of Attleboro, Fall River, New Bedford and Taunton District Courts; Dukes County consists of the Edgartown District Court (Martha’s Vineyard Island); Essex County consists of Gloucester, Haverhill, Ipswich, Lawrence, Lynn, Newburyport, Peabody and Salem District Courts; Franklin County consists of Greenfield and Orange District Courts; Hampden County consists of Chicopee, Holyoke, Palmer, Springfield and Westfield District Courts; Hampshire County consists of Eastern Hampshire and Northampton District Courts; Middlesex County consists of Ayer, Cambridge, Concord, Framingham, Lowell, Malden, Marlborough, Newton, Somerville, Waltham and Woburn District Courts; Nantucket County consists of the Nantucket District Court; Plymouth County consists of Brookline, Dedham, Quincy, Stoughton and Wrentham District Courts; Suffolk County consists of the Chelsea District Court; and Worcester County consists of Clinton, Dudley, East Brookfield, Fitchburg, Gardner, Leominster, Milford, Uxbridge, Westborough, Winchendon and Worcester District Courts. There is also the Boston Municipal Court (BMC), which is akin to a District Court. The BMC has eight divisions: Brighton, Central, Charlestown, Dorchester, East Boston, Roxbury, South Boston and West Roxbury. In total, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is comprised of 14 counties each with its own Superior Court and a total of 65 District Courts or the equivalent within the Boston Municipal Court Department.
Criminal cases are prosecuted in the particular county where the alleged crime was committed. For instance, a person charged with committing a crime in Bristol County will normally be prosecuted in that county. Counties are further divided in separate geographic areas each governed by or assigned to a particular District Court. Using this Bristol County example, if a defendant is accused of committing a crime in the City of New Bedford or the greater New Bedford area, the case will likely be assigned for prosecution in the New Bedford District Court. This same rule or analysis holds true all throughout the Commonwealth.
In Massachusetts, District Court oversees the prosecution of both misdemeanor crimes, meaning those punishable by up to one year or less in jail, and some felonies, meaning those punishable by more than one year in jail. The felonies over which the District Court has authority are called concurrent felonies. These felonies may be prosecuted in either the District or Superior Court. The decision of where to prosecute a concurrent felony charge lies within the discretion of prosecutorial authority in the county where the offense was allegedly committed. This authority is known as the District Attorney’s Office (see more below).
District Court in Massachusetts offers the right to a jury trial. However, juries in District Court consist of six, not twelve, members. Defendants pending prosecution in District Court who elect the right to trial may have their case presided over by either a judge alone or a jury. This decision of a judge alone versus a jury trial belongs to the defendant. If a defendant elects to have a trial by a judge sitting alone, the judge alone will listen to the evidence and decide upon the defendant’s guilt or innocence, and if guilty, impose punishment. Alternatively, if the defendant elects a jury trial, the six-member jury must agree unanimously to render a verdict of guilty and if so, the judge who presided over the case shall then impose punishment. The District Court does not have the power to sentence a defendant to a jail term in excess of 2.5 years in the House of Corrections.
Superior Court in Massachusetts has authority to oversee the prosecution of concurrent felonies, as set forth above, and the most serious felonies over which the District Court has no authority. The only way for a defendant to be prosecuted in Superior Court is to be indicted. Indictment refers to a process whereby a prosecutor presents the State’s evidence to a large group of people from the community known as a grand jury. The grand jurors meet with the prosecutor in secrecy without the presence of a judge, defense lawyer or even the defendant. The purpose of this secret, one-sided presentation of evidence is for the jurors to decide if there exists reason to believe based on specific facts, or probable cause, that the person committed the offense. The jurors do not decide guilt or innocence, only the presence or absence of probable cause necessary to criminally charge a defendant in Superior Court. If a majority of the grand jurors agrees there is probable cause, the person is indicted and formally charged in Superior Court. The Superior Court also offers the right to a jury trial. Juries there consist of 12 members and must vote unanimously on a verdict of guilty. Like the District Court, a defendant in Superior Court may also elect to a have a trial by a judge sitting alone. In both instances, the role of the judge is the same in both Superior and District Courts.
Massachusetts has two appeals courts: the Massachusetts Court of Appeals and the Supreme Judicial Court. Both courts are physically located in Boston. Guilty verdicts and adverse rulings in the District Court are appealed directly to the Court of Appeals.
The prosecuting authority in Massachusetts is the District Attorney’s Office. Each county has its own office. The District Attorney for any given county is a politician and elected public official. The elected District Attorney then appoints lawyers, who the office hires, to serve as criminal case prosecutors. These individuals are called Assistant District Attorneys.
If you have been charged with a crime in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, you need a skilled, criminal defense trial attorney who understands the complexities and levels of the Massachusetts court system. Call Criminal Defense Attorney John L. Calcagni III and the Law Office of John L. Calcagni III today for a free consultation at 401-351-5100.