1. Initial Appearance: The complaint is reviewed and bond is set. In a felony case, a personal recognizance bond may be set, but it is more likely that some form of cash bail will be required because of the severity of the alleged charges.
2. Preliminary Hearing: One of the important differences between a misdemeanor and a felony is that in a felony case there is a preliminary hearing stage. A preliminary hearing is an opportunity for the defendant to see and hear some of the State's evidence. At a preliminary hearing, the State must show probable cause that a felony was committed. Probable cause is a low standard and, in most instances, the State will be able to sustain this burden. If probable cause is shown, the defendant will be bound over for trial. If probable cause is not shown the charges will either be dismissed or reduced to a misdemeanor. An advantage of having a preliminary hearing is that it affords the defendant an opportunity to see and examine some of the State's evidence prior to trial. This can be important because it may help develop defenses or evidence to support suppression motions. In some instances, however, there is a strategic reason to waive a preliminary hearing. Most often it is done to avoid having a witness testify who may otherwise become uncooperative or unavailable at a later date.
3. Scheduling Conference: At this stage, the case is either scheduled for a projected guilty plea or motions and trial. These stages are discussed above in the misdemeanor section. If convicted after a guilty plea or trial, the case will proceed to sentencing. Please refer to the sentencing stage set forth above.
Typically, a misdemeanor case will resolve in 60-150 days. A felony, however, may take up to one year or longer depending upon the complexity of the case. Of course, if a successful negotiation can be reached with the prosecutor, it may be advantageous to resolve the case quickly. The successful outcome of a criminal case often depends upon the active participation of the defendant. At our firm, our Milwaukee criminal law attorneys encourage our clients to address any mental health or substance abuse issues while the case is pending because it is important that we be able to present mitigating factors in the event a dismissal or acquittal of the charges does not occur.
1. Arraignment: The arraignment is the first court appearance in a misdemeanor case. At the arraignment, the criminal complaint is reviewed for probable cause, a not guilty plea is entered and bond is set. In most instances, if the defendant has no prior criminal record or a limited criminal record, a personal recognizance bond is set and the defendant is released after signing a bond slip ordering the defendant to appear at the next scheduled court date. The court will often impose other conditions of release. For instance, in most domestic violence cases the court will issue a no-contact order between the defendant and the alleged victim. The arraignment is an important stage because it is the only opportunity to file a request for substitution of judge.
2. Pretrial Conference: Pretrial Conferences are meetings between the prosecutor and defense counsel to discuss the criminal charges. At this stage, the attorneys attempt to negotiate a resolution to the case, which may include a reduced charge or dismissal if the defendant performs certain conditions. If a resolution cannot be reached the case will either be set for motions or a jury trial date. If the parties reach a resolution, the defendant will enter a guilty plea after which the court will set a sentencing date.
3. Motions/ Jury Trial: At a motion hearing, the defense will seek to suppress evidence or limit its use. The types of motions that may be brought include those to exclude a client's statement to the police, and suppression of physical evidence based on an illegal arrest, stop or search. If the case is not dismissed after the motion hearing, the charges will go forward to either a court or jury trial. A court trial is conducted by the judge alone. There is no jury. The same rules of evidence and standards apply, but it is only the judge who makes the determination of guilt or innocence. At a jury trial, the evidence is presented to a jury of twelve citizens who make the final determination of guilt or innocence. The jury makes factual determinations and the court makes legal rulings. In order for the State to obtain a conviction, the State must prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt and the verdict must be unanimous. If a jury cannot reach a unanimous decision, a mistrial will be declared, and the State will have the option of a retrial.
4. Sentencing: If the defendant is convicted, the court will then impose a sentence. Sentencing is a critical stage and cannot be taken lightly. An experienced attorney will spend a significant amount of time preparing the defendant for this hearing. At sentencing, the defendant may wish to present experts, i.e.: psychologists, psychiatrists, and/or alcohol/drug counselors, to show mitigating factors. Family members, friends and employers may testify or provide letters to show the true character of the client. Often the difference between a lenient and harsh sentence is the effort put forth by the attorney to show that the defendant is remorseful and unlikely to re-offend.