What Exactly Is the Clerk Magistrate Hearing?
The Clerk Magistrate hearing, otherwise known as a show cause hearing, is a pre-arraignment, pre-charge hearing that allows a defendant a chance to challenge the potential charges against them before their case actually gets to a judge. During the hearing, evidence is presented, usually by the police department, to a clerk magistrate, and that clerk looks at the evidence to determine whether the case should go in front of a judge due to the presence of probable cause (which is essentially the lowest legal standard we have in the country). The clerk is acting as a gatekeeper for the justice system as he makes the determination which cases should go forward and which cases should not.
What Happens at a Clerk Magistrate Hearing?
The Clerk Magistrate, or show cause, hearing is a closed, informal hearing, so it usually takes place either in a side room off the clerk’s office or in a small courtroom that isn’t being used at the moment. It is not open to the public. Cases are called one at a time, and because it’s an informal hearing, you are not entitled to an attorney when your case is called. You have to hire an attorney if you want one to be in there with you, otherwise it’s just you.
After you walk in, you sit at a table with the clerk and a police officer. Nine times out of ten that police officer is not the one who was involved in the incident; they’re just a representative from the police department. The officer will read the police report. For instances where a citizen filed a complaint against you, the complaining party would describe the event. The parties involved, including your attorney if you’ve hired one, then go over the evidence.
One positive aspect of the clerk’s hearing is that a decision is rendered then and there. You typically don’t have to wait for anything in the mail. I have seen, however, people who’ve walked in on their own be told by the clerk that they’ll receive something in the mail after the clerk has rendered their decision. That’s usually not a good sign; you’re probably going to get a summons in the mail to show up pre-arraignment. But every time I’ve shown up with a client for a clerk’s hearing, we’ve gotten a decision at that time, whether the case is going to move forward or not. Because these hearings are so informal, they typically go pretty quickly, with most lasting between ten and 15 minutes, though a few might run 30 minutes. The hearing is really just the parties sitting around a table, discussing the facts. The police officer’s input is nothing more than reading the police report, and that’s it. The potential defendant or their attorney makes their case, and it’s over.
What Is the Clerk Magistrate Looking for at a Show Cause Hearing?
Technically speaking, the clerk magistrate is looking to establish probable cause, which is an incredibly low legal bar. He’s not looking for guilt—determining whether the party is guilty is not his job. He’s simply looking for enough evidence to establish that the incident more than likely occurred as reported. In an assault and battery, for example, the clerk will use the evidence before him to determine if it’s more likely that the assault and battery did occur than did not occur, not if the party is actually guilty. Does the evidence point to a fight actually happening?
That being said, the show cause hearing is an excellent opportunity to have your case resolved by other means because it offers you the ability to resolve less serious cases by getting to what is really at issue with the particular case. Let’s say we have a hit-and-run traffic accident. What is really at issue is someone’s car or personal property was damaged; what really needs to happen is that property needs to be taken care of by being replaced or fixed. In a show cause hearing, the aggrieved party can be in the room, so you have the ability to present evidence that insurance has already stepped in and fixed the damaged property. At that point, there’s no reason for the clerk to send this case into the judicial system and further clog up an already overburdened docket. Therefore, this is a great opportunity to present mitigating factors and circumstances. In addition to the legal standard of probable cause, the clerk can look for reasons why a case should not go forward, meaning you have the ability to put forward a myriad of factors to show the case would waste the court’s time. Maybe the issue that the police were involved in has already been taken care of and there’s no reason for it to go forward.
For more information on Clerk Magistrate Hearings in Massachusetts, an initial consultation is your next best step. Get the information and legal answers you are seeking by calling (617) 718-5550 today.