One of the most common questions we hear when people call our office for advice is: “I have a pre-trial conference next week, what is going to happen?” It is a great question, and like many great question, the answer is: “It depends.”
The purpose of a pretrial conference is to allow the prosecutor and the defense attorney to sit down and discuss whether a case is going to go to trial or, instead, if it can be resolved through a plea bargain. This usually involves the prosecutor making an offer to settle the case short of trial, and the defense attorney discussing this offer with the client to help him or her decide whether or not it is an acceptable way to resolve the case. While each county has slightly different procedures, most counties, including Dane, tend to schedule a pre-trial conference about 4–6 weeks after the initial appearance (or the arraignment in felony cases).
In many instances, the prosecutor will have provided the defense with all the relevant documents and police reports ahead of a pre-trial conference so that the two can have a meaningful conversation. If not, police reports or other information will generally be provided to the defense attorney at the pre-trial conference, and then a second court date will be scheduled where the defense will have to decide whether or not they will accept the prosecutor’s settlement offer or instead want to proceed to trial.
If the two sides do reach an agreement, it can be possible in some cases-particularly those involving less serious misdemeanor charges-to resolve the case at the pre-trial conference. In such cases a judge will permit the Defendant to enter a plea at the pre-trial conference and will sentence him or her at that time. In more serious cases, where additional time is needed to prepare sentencing arguments, the court will generally schedule a plea and sentencing hearing for a later date.
If you are facing a criminal charge, and have a pre-trial conference coming up, it is crucial that you get an experienced attorney to assist you. This is the stage in a criminal case where deals are worked out, and having someone who understands the strength of the evidence in a given case, as well as how prosecutors, judges and juries are likely to view such evidence, is crucial to getting the best result. If you are in this position, make sure to contact a local attorney before your pre-trial conference so that they can review the evidence in your case and work with you to get the best outcome possible.