What to expect at your arraignment or first court appearance

Learn more about the criminal court process, including what to wear, what to do, where to go, appropriate court conduct, and more.

Table of Contents

What should I wear to court?

Dress appropriately for court. If you dress inappropriately, you may be asked to leave the courtroom. Appropriate attire, whether as a participant in a case, a witness, or an observer, shows respect for the judge who will be deciding the case. As a general rule, you should think of the courtroom as a formal environment. 

Suggested guidelines

Don't wear:

  • Shorts
  • Hats
  • A halter or tube top
  • A see-through top
  • Flip flops
  • Clothes that expose your midriff or underwear
  • Ripped or torn jeans
  • Baggy pants that fall below your hips
  • Clothes with an emblem or words that promote illegal or inappropriate activity
  • Clothes that show or promote violence, sex acts, illegal drug use, or profanity

Where should I go when I arrive at court?

When you come to the building for your arraignment, your first stop should be the District Court probation office if your case is in District Court, or the Superior Court probation office if your case is in Superior Court. Weapons aren't allowed in the courthouse.

Most cases start in District Court, even murder cases. The name of the court should be on the paperwork you received after your arrest or in the mail. If you don't have your paperwork, some courthouses have an information desk when you walk in with a list of cases scheduled for that day and the courtroom where the case will be heard. If the case is scheduled to be heard in District Court, or if you haven't been able to figure out which court the case is in, start in the District Court criminal clerk's office and ask if they have your case listed.

Once you're in the correct probation office for the court hearing your case, the probation officer will conduct an intake interview. In addition to basic identifying information, the interview will include questions about your financial status. Based on this information, the probation officer will calculate whether you qualify for a court-appointed lawyer (although only a judge has the power to appoint a lawyer.) The probation officer will also check in a database called CARI (Court Activity Record Information) for information about your criminal history. This information will later be used by the judge to determine whether there are any outstanding warrants or payments that must be addressed in addition to the current charges, and whether to impose bail.  

When you have finished your interview with the probation officer, you should go the courtroom where your arraignment will be held. The probation officer will tell you, or you can ask, what courtroom your arraignment will be in and how to get there.

Can court staff help me?

Court staff can:

  • Explain and answer questions about how the court works
  • Tell you about the requirements to have your case considered by the court
  • Give you some information from your case file
  • Provide you with guidance on how to fill out forms
  • Usually answer questions about court deadlines

Court staff can’t:

  • Give you legal advice — only your lawyer can give you legal advice
  • Tell you whether or not to bring your case to court
  • Give you an opinion about what will happen if you bring your case to court
  • Recommend a lawyer. However, court staff can give you information to contact a local referral service.
  • Talk to a judge for you about what will happen in your case
  • Let you talk to the judge outside of court
  • Change an order issued by a judge

What should I do when I enter the courtroom?

Enter the courtroom and sit close to the front. The very first row may be reserved for people in custody. When court starts, the judge will enter and sit on the bench at the front of the room. A probation officer will usually sit to the judge's left or right and keep the judge informed about any probation information related to the case being called. The clerk will usually sit in front of the judge and will record what happens in each case in a case file. The prosecutor or assistant district attorney will usually sit at a table in front of the judge. They represent the state and will present information about the case obtained by the police.

Listen for your name to be called. Your name may be mispronounced, so listen closely. When your name is called, say "Present" loud and clear. If your name is called and you don't answer, it's considered the same as not being there. If your name isn't called, tell the person who is calling the names or a court officer at the first recess or break. You may be in the wrong courtroom.

If you get to court late, stay in the courtroom. The assistant district attorney or someone else may call names a second time after court starts. At the next break or recess, let the person who is calling the names or a court officer know that you're there, although if you're late, your case may need to be continued on another date.

What conduct is expected in the courtroom?

Because certain behaviors are noisy, distracting, or disrespectful in the courtroom, it's recommended that you don’t:

  • Chew gum or eat
  • Read a newspaper
  • Sleep
  • Wear a hat
  • Use earphones
  • Carry a cell phone or pager, unless it's turned off
  • Have a camera or camera phone

During the hearing, you should talk directly to the judge and not the other side. Avoid arguing with or interrupting another person, and control your emotions. When you talk to the judge, start by saying "Your Honor." Speak loudly and clearly and remember that only one person can speak at a time. A court reporter or a tape recorder is usually taking down everything said in the courtroom, and can only record one speaker at a time.

Who are the people in the courtroom?

  • Defendant — The person charged with a crime.
  • Pro se defendant — A person charged with a crime who represents themself and doesn't have a lawyer.
  • Defense attorney — The defense attorney represents the defendant.
  • Prosecutor — The prosecutor represents the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and works for the district attorney. Each county in Massachusetts elects 1 district attorney, who then employs assistant district attorneys (prosecutors) to represent the office in the courts. You can find a directory of district attorneys at the District Attorneys Association.
  • Court officer — A person in a uniform similar to that of a police officer, wearing a white shirt, who is charged with keeping order in the court.  A court officer may also guide you to the correct location in the courtroom or the court building.
  • Clerk — A clerk will sit in the courtroom during the court session to keep the records of the proceedings that happen that day. Clerk-magistrates in District Court also serve as judicial hearing officers on procedural criminal matters, such as show cause hearings.
  • Judge — The judge presides over the hearing to make sure that the rules and procedures are followed to ensure that justice is done. The judge has the final decision-making authority for imposing bail and sentences. If there is no jury at a trial, the judge will perform the jury’s functions — weighing the facts and deciding guilt or innocence.
  • Probation officer — A probation officer is usually in the courtroom, except when a trial is going on. The probation department is part of the Trial Court and will, among other duties, track a defendant's compliance with court orders and report that information to the judge.
  • Court reporter — A court reporter may be in the Superior Court, and records everything that’s said in the courtroom. In District Court, the proceedings are tape-recorded. Copies of the recorder's notes (transcript) or the tape recording usually take time to produce. For more information, see Time Standards for Completion of Transcripts in Civil and Criminal Cases (Administrative Order 09-02).

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