Glossary of bail terms

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

Table of Contents



The first step, or formal start, of a criminal case. In Superior Court, the session clerk will read the charges and a summary of the case’s alleged facts to the defendant in court. In Boston Municipal Court (BMC), District Court, and Juvenile Court, the session clerk reads the charges and then the judge will assign a lawyer, decide bail, and let the parties know about the next date.

Assistant District Attorney (ADA) or prosecutor

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


Bar advocate

A criminal defense lawyer assigned by a judge to represent a criminal defendant who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.


Bail allows a person to be released from custody during the criminal process. Bail can either be a promise to appear or cash that is posted with the court. A person may also be ordered to follow certain conditions when they are released.

Bail warning

A standard warning a judge gives in court that tells the defendant what will happen if they don’t follow the bail terms and conditions.



The clerk-magistrate is the court’s official record keeper. Clerk-magistrates may also perform other duties, like setting bail after court hours or issuing warrants. Clerk-magistrates are appointed by the governor and must be confirmed by the Governor’s Council. They are elected by county in the Superior Court.


Dangerousness hearing

A criminal defendant has the right to have a bail set and be free until the charges against them are resolved by the court. 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 dangerousness hearing (also called a 58A hearing) and ask that the defendant either be held without bail or be ordered to obey certain conditions such as GPS monitoring, curfew, etc.

Default warrant

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


  • In criminal cases: The person who is charged with a crime. 
  • In civil (non-criminal) cases: The person who a lawsuit is brought against. 

Bail only applies in criminal cases.


The process of gathering and preserving evidence before a trial. Types of discovery may include:  

  • Objects 
  • Witness testimony 
  • Photographs 
  • Surveillance video or other video recordings
  • Tapes of 9-1-1 calls



Any crime that may be punished with a state prison sentence.


Grand jury

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



Requests made to the court before or during a trial asking for an order or decision on some part of the case. Usually a party will request a hearing before a judge to decide the motion.  

Motion to dismiss

The defense attorney asks the court to dismiss the charges against the defendant because there isn’t enough evidence.

Motion to suppress

The defense attorney asks the court to exclude evidence that the prosecutor will offer at trial because they believe the evidence was obtained in a way that violates the defendant’s constitutional rights.


Personal recognizance

When the court releases a defendant from jail on their word or promise to show up on their scheduled day and time in court.

Probable cause

In criminal cases, probable cause is required for a criminal complaint to be issued. The court finds probable cause when it reviews the paperwork or holds a hearing and finds that the crime charged and all of the required factors of the crime have been met. 


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


A lawyer (district attorney or assistant district attorney (ADA)) who represents the Commonwealth in a criminal case.


Self-represented litigant/pro se litigant

People who represent themselves in court without a lawyer.

Session clerk

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

Statutory fee

A standard fee set by law (statute).


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

Contact   for Glossary of bail terms


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

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