Criminal cases in district court begin with an application for a "complaint" that is filed by the police, private individual, or other organization, in the district court clerk's office. In superior court, cases begin with an indictment (a document listing the charges) that has been returned by a grand jury. The grand jury is a group of citizens who hear evidence presented by the prosecutor. If the grand jury decides there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed, they issue an indictment and the individual is then notified of the indictment and must appear in superior court on the arraignment date, the first court date. This charge does not mean that the person has committed the crime. Guilt must be determined later by a judge or jury.     

Most crimes begin in district court, and the more serious crimes are then brought to the grand jury. If the grand jury issues an indictment, the district court complaint will be dismissed and the case will be handled in superior court. The district court is generally limited to deciding cases for which the maximum authorized penalty for a crime is not more than five years' imprisonment, although there are a few additional crimes set out in the statutes that a district court may also decide. G.L. c. 218, section 26; G.L. c. 274. section 7. Offenses Within District Court Criminal Jurisdiction pdf format of Offenses Within District Court Criminal Jurisdiction provides a list of crimes that can be resolved in the district court (district court has jurisdiction).

All of the crimes on this list can also be handled in the superior court because superior court can hear all criminal cases. If a crime does not appear on this list, it can only be resolved in superior court (although it the case may begin in district court).