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Glossary of bail terms

A glossary of commonly-used bail terms to help you understand the bail process
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Table of Contents

Terms and definitions

Arraignment

The first step, or formal start, of a criminal case. The session clerk will read the charges to the defendant in court, as well as a summary of the alleged facts of the case.

Assistant District Attorney (ADA) or prosecutor

The ADA represents the District Attorney’s office, and brings the case against the defendant to be tried in a criminal court, usually the District Court, Boston Municipal Court, or Superior Court. The prosecutor will often identify themselves in court by saying their name and that they are “Representing the Commonwealth” (Massachusetts).

Bar advocate

Criminal defense attorney assigned by a judge to represent a criminal defendant who can’t afford to hire an attorney.

Bail warning

Standard warning given by a judge in court that informs a defendant what will happen if they don’t follow or obey the terms and conditions of their bail.

Clerk-magistrate

The clerk-magistrate is the official record keeper of the court. Clerk-magistrates also perform quasi-judicial functions, such as setting bail after court hours. Clerk-magistrates are appointed by the governor with the advice and must be confirmed by Governor’s Council, and elected by county in the Superior Court. By court rules, clerk-magistrates may arraign defendants in the Superior Court.

Dangerousness hearing

Normally, a criminal defendant has the right to have bail set and to be free until the charges against them are resolved by the court. They can also be held if there is evidence of a failure to appear in addition to dangerousness hearing. However, if a prosecutor believes that a person charged with a crime is too dangerous to be set free while the charges are pending, they can request a hearing and move to hold the defendant without bail, or release the defendant only on certain conditions (GPS monitoring, curfew, etc.). This hearing is known as a “58A” hearing after the statute (law) authorizing this procedure.

Default warrant

An arrest warrant for a defendant who hasn’t appeared for a hearing in a criminal case.

Defendant

In criminal cases, the person against whom a criminal case is brought. In civil (non-criminal) cases, the person against whom a lawsuit is brought. Bail only applies in criminal cases.

Discovery

The process of gathering and preserving evidence before a trial. Types of discovery include:  objects, witness testimony, photographs, surveillance video or other video recordings, tapes of 9-1-1 calls, etc.

Felony

Any crime punishable by imprisonment in a state prison, even if the specific statute or law allows for an alternative sentence to a House of Correction.

Grand jury

A group of citizens that hears evidence relating to criminal complaints and accusations. The evidence is presented secretly, by the prosecutor (district attorney) alone. The defense doesn’t get an opportunity to present its side of the story. The grand jury issues an indictment if it’s satisfied that there is a probable cause to believe that a crime was committed, and that the accused committed that crime. A grand jury has 23 members. 13 members must be present for the grand jury to act, and 12 votes are necessary to return an indictment.

Indictment

A formal accusation voted by a grand jury at a prosecutor’s request, which charges a person with a crime. The grand jury indictment replaces the application for a complaint in felony cases. Also called a “true bill” (or a “no bill” if the grand jury doesn’t indict).

Motions

Requests made to the court either pre-trial or during a trial seeking an order or decision on some aspect of the case.

Motion to suppress

The defense attorney asks the court to exclude or bar evidence that will be offered by a prosecutor at trial because they believe the evidence was obtained in violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights

Motion to dismiss

The defense attorney asks the court to dismiss the charges against the defendant due to lack of evidence.

Probable cause

In criminal cases, reasonable grounds for believing that the facts justify issuing an arrest or search warrant or a criminal complaint, or taking other legal action.

Proceedings

Hearings and other required court appearances related to a defendant’s case.

Prosecutor

An attorney (district attorney or assistant district attorney) who represents the Commonwealth in a criminal case.

Self-represented litigant/pro se litigant

People representing themselves in court without an attorney.

Session clerk

The clerk who assists the judge when the court is in session.

Statutory fee

A standard fee determined by law (an act of the state legislature).

Surety

A person who agrees to pay the defendant’s bail if the defendant doesn’t pay it.

Contact

Phone

Catherine M. Coughlin, Esquire (617) 788-7312

Address

Suffolk County Courthouse
3 Pemberton Square
Room 320
Boston, MA 02108

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