I’ve Been Charged With A Crime – What Happens Next?

If you've been charged with a crime, you probably want to know what to expect from the court process. How does it work? How long do cases take to resolve? What's the procedure?

While each county in Wisconsin has specific scheduling plans, there are some general procedural aspects that are consistent statewide.

Initial Appearances

For either a felony or misdemeanor offense, your first court hearing will be called an "initial appearance". At the initial appearance, you will enter a plea of not guilty if the case is a misdemeanor, or set the matter for a future court appearance if it is a felony. The court will also set bail and conditions of bail/bond.

Wisconsin has two types of bond:

  1. Signature bond (which does not require a person to post any sort of money to be released from custody)
  2. Cash bond (which requires payment of the entire amount set before a person can be released from custody)

Wisconsin is not a bail bondsman state, so to post cash bail, the payer has to secure the entire amount of the funds.

In addition to the monetary conditions of bond, the court can place certain restrictions on a defendant's liberties. Common examples of bond conditions include the following requirements:

  • The defendant must attend all future court appearances
  • The defendant must notify the court of any new address
  • The defendant must not commit any new crimes while on bond

Additional restrictions regarding contact with the alleged victim and consumption of alcohol may also be added, depending on the nature of the offense.

Preliminary Hearings

In every felony case, the defendant has the statutory right to a preliminary hearing. A preliminary hearing essentially determines whether there is probable cause to believe that a felony has been committed, and that the particular defendant in question is probably the person that committed a felony. At preliminary hearings, every reasonable inference goes to the State, meaning that so long as it is plausible that the defendant committed a felony, the matter will be bound over for trial.

The rules of evidence are relaxed at a preliminary hearing (for example, hearsay is now admissible). Nonetheless, it can often be an opportunity to see the State's witnesses testify for the first time, and to get a sense of the evidence the State has against a client at an early stage of proceedings.

Preliminary hearings must be held within ten days if a defendant is in custody, and within 20 days if the defendant is out of custody. Often, defendants will elect to waive the time limits for the preliminary hearing to allow counsel time to prepare for the hearing.

A defendant has a right to waive a preliminary hearing. Many times, a waiver of a preliminary hearing will be made in conjunction with an offer to resolve the case.

Pre-trial conferences

After an initial appearance in misdemeanor cases, or preliminary hearing in a felony case, the court will schedule a pre-trial conference. Generally speaking, pre-trial conferences are held approximately six to eight weeks after the initial appearance or preliminary hearing. By the time of the pre-trial conference, your attorney will have what is referred to as "discovery materials", which tend to be:

  • Police reports
  • Photographs
  • Audio/visual evidence in the State's possession
During the pre-trial conference, the State and your attorney negotiate a potential resolution for the case short of a jury trial. In the event that the resolution is unsatisfactory to you, your case will be placed on the trial calendar. Depending on the county you are charged in, you may have multiple pre-trial conferences.

Trial

In the event that a case does not resolve with a plea agreement, the matter is set for trial. Trials tend to be several months after an initial appearance, and in serious felony cases, it may take over a year before a case is tried. All adult criminal cases have the right to a jury trial, but a defendant can elect to "waive" jury and proceed with a trial to the court. Juvenile defendants do not have jury trial rights, so every juvenile case in Wisconsin is tried to the court only. Trials can take one day or several days, depending on the nature and severity of the charges.

If a defendant is convicted at trial, the court may proceed to sentencing immediately, or may set an additional date for sentencing in the future. If a defendant is acquitted, then no further proceedings occur.

Sentencing Hearings

Sometimes, the court will schedule a sentencing hearing at a separate date or time. If you have been convicted of a felony offense, the court may order a Pre-Sentence Investigation (PSI). An agent with the Department of Corrections conducts a Pre-Sentence Investigation, and produces a lengthy document containing information about a defendant's criminal history and personal history. The PSI will also often make a recommendation as to whether a defendant should be placed on probation or incarcerated, and if so, for how long.

Defendants do have the opportunity to retain an expert of their own to complete an alternative PSI. Our trial lawyers regularly work with a forensic sentencing consultant to produce alternative pre-sentence investigations.