Although the police are generally responsible for investigating allegations of illegal activity and arresting suspects, it is possible under Massachusetts law for anyone to file a criminal complaint. This does not mean the person named in the complaint will be arrested or face trial. But it can trigger a clerk-magistrate hearing to determine whether or not there is probable cause to proceed with a criminal prosecution.
The Role of Private Accusers in a Clerk Magistrate Hearing
A complaint is an important first step in a Massachusetts criminal proceeding. In most cases, the police officer who arrests a suspect files an application for complaint with the court. But in misdemeanor cases, any person may file an application for complaint with their local District Court. Typically, when a private individual wishes to initiate a criminal case without the involvement of the police, they must still obtain and fill out a formal incident report at their local police station. The person must then take a copy of their completed incident report to the District Court and file it with their application for complaint.
Once the court receives the application, the clerk-magistrate will schedule a hearing. The person named in the complaint–the defendant–must be notified of the hearing. Both the applicant and the defendant must appear. If for some reason the applicant does not appear, the clerk magistrate can deny the application outright, meaning the defendant will not face any formal charges.
Since the purpose of the hearing is to determine whether or not there is “probable cause” to issue a complaint, the clerk-magistrate will not resolve any conflicting testimony between the parties. Probable cause is, by design, a low threshold to criminal prosecution. So long as the clerk magistrate is satisfied there is probable cause that (a) a crime was committed and (b) the defendant committed that crime, the court will issue a complaint. Any disputes over the evidence itself must be resolved at trial.
At the same time, the rights of a private individual who files an application for complaint are largely limited to attending the clerk magistrate hearing. If the clerk decides that probable cause does not exist and declines to issue a complaint, the applicant can ask for a redetermination from the court. But the applicant generally cannot appeal to a higher court. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has consistently said it will not review a clerk magistrate’s refusal to issue a complaint based on a private party’s application.
It is also important to note that even if the clerk magistrate issues a complaint, the matter is then turned over to the local district attorney’s office for prosecution. A private citizen cannot conduct their own prosecution. And if a private applicant alleges a crime constituting a felony, the matter must be turned over to the district attorney, as a clerk magistrate’s jurisdiction is limited to misdemeanor complaints.
Contact Nate Amendola Defense Today
Anytime you face a potential criminal complaint from the police or a private individual, you have the right to work with a qualified clerk magistrate hearing attorney in Massachusetts. Contact Nate Amendola Defense today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation.