What is an Arraignment in Massachusetts?

Arraignment Definition

Everything starts at the arraignment in a criminal case. It’s the first time you really come up against the full might of the government. They can try to hold you in custody in several ways including asking for bail. The purpose of the arraignment is to officially tell you what the charges are against you. In Massachusetts, an arraignment is what triggers an entry on your criminal record. You may have had a Clerk-Magistrate’s Hearing, but the arraignment is the first time you are on the record.

Before the Arraignment

After you have been arrested or summonsed to appear in court, you will be arraigned. If you were released on bail or on personal recognizance at a police station, you will be given a date when you must appear for the arraignment. If you don’t show up, a warrant may issue for your arrest. If you are held in custody, you will be taken to the courthouse the next time it is open for business.

What to do on the day of arraignment

On your arraignment day, arrive at the courthouse on time. Dress appropriately. The first thing you must do is to check in with the probation department. You will speak with a probation officer. The probation officer is looking for several things:

  • Confirming you are in fact the person to be arraigned;
  • Determining if you have a criminal record;
  • Looking to see if you have any outstanding warrants; and,
  • Seeing if you qualify for a court-appointed attorney.

The Arraignment Process

When you are done with the probation interview, go into the courtroom. There will be several other people scheduled for arraignment on the same day. Whether you are there for a felony arraignment or a misdemeanor arraignment, the process is the same. The session clerk will call your name. That person will tell you specifically what the charges are against you. A not guilty plea will enter on your behalf. That plea of not guilty will be entered on the docket. The docket is an official document that includes all important information about your case.

The judge or clerk will ask what you want to do about an attorney. Your options are:

  • Represent yourself;
  • Hire an attorney;
  • Ask for court-appointed attorney.

Do I qualify for a court-appointed attorney?

In order to get a court-appointed attorney, you must qualify financially. You qualify if you receive public assistance from one of these programs:

  • Massachusetts Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children;
  • Massachusetts Emergency Aid to Elderly, Disabled & Children;
  • Federal Supplemental Security Income;
  • MassHealth (formerly Medicaid) or
  • Massachusetts Veterans Benefits.

Or you could qualify for a court-appointed attorney if your income, after taxes, is below one hundred twenty-five percent (125%) of the Federal Poverty Guideline. It doesn’t take much to be disqualified. If you live with other people, their income will be counted as well. If you own a home or any other significant asset, you probably won’t qualify.

The minimum cost for a court-appointed attorney is one hundred-fifty dollars ($150.00). If it is decided that you can contribute more for the attorney’s services, an additional fee will be charged.

What if I can’t pay the fee for a court-appointed attorney?

If an attorney is appointed for you and you can’t afford the fee, you may ask the Court if you can perform community service instead of paying the money. The community service program is run through the probation department. If you are doing community service through the probation department, you report to the court on certain days. You get on the community service van. The van then drives to a location where the work is done. Usually, it is along the side of the road; in a town square; or at a park. You will mostly be picking up litter and generally cleaning.

Some judges will allow you to perform community service by volunteering at a non-profit organization. In that case, you choose a non-profit group and have it approved by the probation department. You then contact that organization and make arrangements to volunteer. At the end of your service there, you will get a letter written on the group’s letterhead that you have performed the required number of volunteer hours. Whether you perform community service on the van or at a non-profit, you get credit for ten dollars ($10.00) per hour.

Will I get bail at arraignment?

The Judge will ask the Assistant District Attorney (A.D.A.) if there is a question of bail. Even if you were arrested and released from the police department on personal recognizance or you made bail, the government can still ask for more bail. The A.D.A. will review:

  • the police report;
  • your criminal record; and,
  • information from the probation department interview

to decide if bail is appropriate in your case.

When deciding whether to set bail and if so in what amount, the Court considers many factors. Among other things, the Judge is looking to see if you:

  • are a flight risk;
  • have a history of defaulting (not showing up for court);
  • have ties to the community; and,
  • have a history of consistent employment.

Conditions of release

The Judge may also impose conditions on your release. That means that you will be released but there are certain things you must do or not do. Some common conditions of release include:

  • remain drug and alcohol free;
  • submit to random drug and alcohol testing;
  • staying away from a person or address; and,
  • submitting to a GPS monitoring system.

Bail warning

At arraignment, the judge or clerk will give you what is called a bail warning. The bail warning informs you that while you have an open criminal case, if you are charged with a new crime, the government can request that your bail in the open case be revoked. If your bail is revoked, you will be taken into custody and can be held for up to ninety (90) days without the chance of being bailed out. You may also lose the money that was posted for bail.

Dangerousness Hearing

At arraignment, the Commonwealth can ask the Court to hold you in custody because you are a danger to the community. For this to happen, you must be charged with certain crimes. Those crimes are serious in nature and often involve violence. At arraignment, you could be held in custody if the District Attorney’s Office convinces the Judge that you have been charged with one of the specified crimes and there is probable cause to believe you committed it. You will be held until there is a hearing on this matter typically within seven days. At that hearing, the government must prove that there is probable cause that you committed this crime and that there is no less-restrictive means to protect the citizens of the Commonwealth. If the judge is convinced, you could be held for up to one-hundred twenty (120) days.

Probation Detention

You could be taken into custody at your arraignment if you are already on probation. One of the conditions of your probation is not to commit any new crimes. Getting arrested for a new crime is evidence that you committed that crime. The Probation Department can request a Probation Surrender Hearing for the Court to decide if you are in violation of your probation. They can also ask the Court to detain you in custody while waiting for the hearing.

Arraignment vs. Indictment

What’s the difference between indictment and arraignment? An arraignment is a hearing that takes place in court. Arraignments happen in both District and Superior Court. An indictment is a document produced from a grand jury proceeding in the Superior Court. A grand jury is a group of people that sit and listen to evidence presented only by the government. Neither you nor your attorney are present at the grand jury. They never hear your side of the story. If the grand jury is convinced there is probable cause that you committed a crime, they will return an indictment. Because this is such a lopsided affair, there is an old joke that a grand jury could indict a ham sandwich.

What Happens After Arraignment?

After you are arraigned, you will be given a date to come back to court. The next step in the process is a Pre-Trial Conference. The Pre-Trial Conference is a chance for the Assistant District Attorney and your lawyer to discuss the merits of your case. There are usually several Pre-Trial Conferences for one case. There may also be Discovery Compliance and Election dates where information, called discovery, is exchanged. Your case may be suitable for a Motion to Dismiss or a Motion to Suppress. You may seek to suppress evidence, statements, or out-of-court identifications.

How Long After Arraignment is Trial?

A trial on your matter must take place within twelve (12) months of your return date. Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure, Rule 36. Typically, the return date is considered your arraignment date. That is the general rule with many exceptions. In reality, there is no guarantee that you will get a trial within one year of your arraignment.


The arraignment in your case is a critically important step in the criminal justice process. Many decisions are made on this one day that can have enormous consequences. The government can ask to have you held in jail for several reasons. They may ask for bail on your case. They may ask for conditions to be placed on your freedom. It is very important that you have an experienced criminal defense attorney representing you. Please feel free to look around on our website AffordLaw.Org for more information. See if you qualify for our reduced rates. At Afford Law, we’re making justice affordable.

The information you obtain at this site is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation. We invite you to contact us and welcome your calls, letters and electronic mail. Contacting us does not create an attorney-client relationship. Please do not send any confidential information to us until such time as an attorney-client relationship has been established.