Probable cause hearings are also known in Massachusetts as show cause and magistrate hearings. They are held to decide if there is sufficient evidence to charge you with a crime in district court. There are many types of minor crimes where you may not necessarily be arrested right away. If that is the case, most likely you will have a probable and show cause hearing in the place of an arraignment.
Usually, a show cause hearing is scheduled when a misdemeanor charge is being sought against you by a police officer or private party. Note that if you have been mailed a summons to appear for a probable or show cause hearing, you are actually in a superior position than if you were summoned for a criminal arraignment. What this means is that you have not been charged - yet.
If you have received a motor vehicle citation that only has misdemeanor offenses, you have four days to request a probable and show cause hearing. This is a common reason for this type of hearing.
The probable cause hearing is much less formal than a regular court appearance. Consider:
- There is not a judge presiding over the proceeding
- There is a clerk magistrate who will hear evidence from law enforcement or a citizen who wants to bring charges against you.
- Many police departments in Massachusetts will dispatch a liaison officer who just reads the police report from the officer who investigated the matter.
- If a complaint has been sought by a private individual, it is required that this person testify.
When You Are Not Entitled to a Probable and Show Cause Hearing
You cannot have a probable and show cause hearing in the following cases:
- You have been arrested by the police on the charges
- The charges feature a felony
- The magistrate decides you are dangerous, are likely to hurt someone or could commit another crime
Why Legal Representation Is Required at a Probable and Show Cause Hearing
- It is unlikely you want to personally testify at this hearing. It will be recorded and your testimony can be used against you if a criminal complaint is made.
- You have a right to a cross examine on a limited basis of whoever is providing testimony against you. It is important to have a skilled defense attorney handle this matter for you.
- You can present evidence at the hearing, and will probably want an experienced attorney to review the evidence you want to show to indicate there is no probable cause to charge you with a crime.
- You should have a defense attorney with you to try to resolve the situation so no criminal complaint is made. Once there is a criminal complaint, that is part of your criminal record whether you are convicted or not.
What Happens at a Probable and Show Cause Hearing?
There is a clerk magistrate who presides over this hearing. It is generally not done in a court of law but in the office of the clerk, or a similar small meeting room. You have a legal right to be represented by a defense attorney and you should take advantage of that. You have the right to tell your version of events, which your attorney may advise you to not do. You also have the right to bring relevant evidence in your defense, and bring witnesses to testify on your behalf.
The alleged victim also gets a hearing notice. He may appear to testify or will bring witnesses. If law enforcement sought the hearing, the police officer will show to testify about what he knows. Or, he will read the police report to the clerk magistrate.
There are three potential outcomes at a probable and show cause hearing:
- The magistrate clerk may believe probable cause exists. He then will issue a complaint that charges you with a crime. The criminal case will be begun and you will face arraignment. At that time, public records will be produced and will be on your permanent record even if the case is dismissed or you are found not guilty. If there is a criminal case against you, you will need to answer when you were charged with a crime, even if you are not found guilty. There is not an appeal from the decision of the clerk to issue the complaint. Usually, the next chance to have your case dismissed is after arraignment, and the case is opened.
- The magistrate clerk may believe there is no probable cause. So, he will dismiss the application for a criminal complaint. There will be no public records generated during this probable and show cause hearing. If the criminal application is dismissed, it is as if the event never occurred. If the complaint is denied, the complainant has the right to request a judge to perform a redetermination. This means the judge will review the case and arrive at a new decision. It is at the judge’s discretion whether to just review the materials that were given to the clerk, or whether to let new materials and witnesses.
- The clerk magistrate may also hold the application. This simply means he will not dismiss the case right away, but will hold it for up to one year. It could be dismissed at that time if there are no additional allegations made. No public records have been generated when the application is being held.
So What's Next
While a probable and show cause hearing may seem informal, this is a key step in criminal proceedings. This is your shot to show the clerk magistrate there is insufficient evidence that shows that you may have committed a crime. Therefore, if you are attending a probable and show cause hearing, you should be accompanied by a skilled criminal defense attorney, if you want to avoid criminal charges from showing on your record.
Remember, even if you are acquitted, criminal charges on your record are permanent. Take advantage of the opportunity to avoid a criminal record. For a Boston criminal defense attorney consultation, please contact Attorney Geoffrey Nathan at (617) 472-5775.