Understanding the Court Process

Victim & Witness Assistants will help guide you through the criminal justice process.

The District Attorney's Office asks for your cooperation and patience during the prosecution stages and will make every attempt to avoid any inconvenience to you.

The following describes various court procedures that may be pertinent to the case:

Complaint - A complaint is a document issued by the Court formally charging a person (the defendant) with having committed a crime. The Complaint is usually issued by the Clerk-Magistrate after a police officer or private citizen completes and swears to an "Application for Complaint," briefly describing the facts of the crime. If the accused person is not already under arrest, the Clerk-Magistrate usually holds a Clerk's Hearing before deciding whether to issue a complaint. At the hearing the person complaining and the person accused tell their versions of what took place, and the Clerk decides whether to issue a complaint. If the Clerk does not issue the Complaint, the complaining person may appeal to the judge to issue the Complaint.

If a complaint is issued, it is issued on behalf of the Commonwealth, and the District Attorney's Office decides whether or not the case will be prosecuted.

Arraignment - The Arraignment is the first time the defendant appears in court. At that time he is advised by the judge of the charge(s) against him and of the right to have a lawyer. At the Arraignment, the judge determines the conditions under which the defendant will be released until the trial. Since people are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty, the primary purpose of bail is simply to insure that the defendant will appear in Court on the scheduled date.  

Pre-Trial Hearing - At the arraignment, a pre-trial hearing date will be scheduled. At this time, the District Attorney, the Defense Attorney, and the defendant discuss the case to determine if the case will go to trial, or if the defendant will be pleading guilty to the charges. A defendant has the right to offer a guilty plea at any stage of the court proceedings; therefore, it is very important that the victims contact the Victim & Witness Office to advise of any concerns they may have.

District Court Trial - For certain crimes, the District Court Judge has the authority to conduct a trial to determine the guilt of the defendant. The defendant has a right to a District Court Trial by a judge of by a jury of six persons. In court, an Assistant District Attorney will represent the Commonwealth and be in charge of the prosecution of the case. The Assistant District Attorney may want to talk with you at a conference before the trial date or immediately before you testify. At the trial, the Commonwealth must prove (beyond a reasonable doubt) that the defendant is guilty. The defendant does not have to testify. As a witness, your testimony may be necessary to the court in determining if the defendant is guilty or not guilty.

Summons (Subpoena) - A summons is a court order directing you to appear in court at a stated time and place. If you receive a summons, you must appear in court. Bring the summons with you when you appear on the required day, and the report either to the Victim/Witness Office or to the District Attorney's Office in the appropriate courthouse.

Probable Cause Hearing - Certain crimes cannot be tried in the District Court. For these crimes the judge may schedule a preliminary hearing in the District Court called a Probable Cause Hearing. At this hearing the judge listens to testimony from witnesses and determines whether the evidence presented is sufficient to send the case to the Superior Court. Again, it is necessary for all summoned (subpoenaed) witnesses to appear at the Probable Cause Hearing .

Grand Jury - A case sent to the Superior Court may be presented to a Grand Jury, a group of 23 citizens. The Grand Jury hears evidence presented by an Assistant District Attorney through the questioning of witnesses in a secret session. The defendant is not present at the Grand Jury Hearing. If 13 or more members of the Grand Jury believe a crime was committed by the accused, the accused will be formally charged. The formal charge by the Grand Jury is an Indictment.  

Superior Court Trial - Before the Superior Court Trial, the defendant is brought before the judge for arraignment, as in the District Court procedure. In the Superior Court, the defendant has the right to be tried by a jury of 12 persons or by a judge. The judge or jury will then decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. If your testimony is needed during the trial, you will be summoned to appear.

Sentencing - If the defendant is found not guilty at the trial, he is free to go and may not be tried again for the same offense. If the defendant is found guilty, the judge may choose any of the following sentences:

  • Imprisonment
  • Probation
  • Fine
  • Restitution

The judge may also decide to continue a case without a finding for a specified period of time.  

Continuances - Occasionally, court hearings cannot take place as scheduled and will be postponed. The Victim & Witness Assistance Office will attempt to notify you of a postponement in order that you might avoid an unnecessary trip to court. You can call the office the day before your court appearance to check on postponements.

As a victim or witness, it is very important to keep the Victim & Witness Assistance Office informed of your current address and telephone number (home and work) so that we can contact you about your case. If you change your address of telephone number, be sure to let us know.

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