Vanden Heuvel & Dineen, S.C. - Attorney Daniel R. Skarie

Wisconsin Criminal Court Procedure


Familiarize yourself with Wisconsin criminal court procedure before stepping into the courtroom. One of the primary jobs of a criminal defense lawyer is ensuring that you understand all aspects of the criminal justice system. Please take a moment to review the critical phases of a criminal case.


Felony or Misdemeanor?

​A misdemeanor is a crime punishable by confinement to the county jail for one year or less. A felony is a crime that punishable by incarceration for more than a year in state prison.


Initial Appearance

The initial appearance is the defendant’s first court appearance. At the initial appearance, the judge or court commissioner informs the defendant of the charges and penalties he or she faces. Additionally, the defendant receives the formal charging document known as the criminal complaint. The defendant is then required to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest.

If the defendant enters a guilty or no contest plea, the court will resolve the case at the initial appearance or schedule a sentencing hearing. If the defendant pleads not guilty, the court usually calendars a pretrial or status conference date, typically roughly a month later. After the initial appearance, the defendant may request copies of the discovery materials possessed by the prosecution. These materials usually include police reports, video, audio, and other evidence that the prosecuting attorney possesses.


Preliminary Hearing (Felony Only)

​At the preliminary hearing, the judge or court commissioner takes testimony to decide if probable cause exists that the defendant committed a crime in the court’s jurisdiction. It is the State’s burden to prove probable cause exists. If the judge or court commissioner determines that probable cause exists, the defendant is “bound over” for trial. If not, the judge may dismiss all or part of the case. If the State met their burden, the court schedule s the case for arraignment.


Arraignment (Felony Only)

​The judge informs the defendant of the charges he or she faces at trial. The defendant pleads guilty, not guilty, or no contest. If there is a plea of guilty or no contest, the court calendars a sentencing hearing. If not, the court will schedule the case for a status conference, motion hearing, trial, or another appropriate court date.


Pretrial or Status Conference

A pretrial or status conference is a court hearing set to inform the judge of the progress of the case, including if the matter will proceed to trial. If the parties reach an agreement, the court schedules a sentencing hearing. If not, the court will schedule the case for a status conference, motion hearing, trial, or another appropriate court date.


Motion Hearing

A motion is a verbal or written request asking the judge to decide a legal question before, during, or after the trial. If the motion concerns a factual dispute, the court conducts an evidentiary hearing at which both sides may present evidence via testimony. If not, the court typically requests legal briefing from both parties.


Pretrial Negotiation

​Many convictions are the product of negotiations between the prosecutor representing the State and the defendant’s attorney. Negotiations may result in a complete or partial agreement between the parties regarding the outcome of the case. Any agreement presented to the judge for approval. At such a sentencing hearing, both parties present arguments to the judge in support of the agreed-upon resolution.


Potential Outcomes of Prosecution

There are several ways in which a criminal case may resolve. If the parties enter a deferred prosecution agreement (“DPA”), the defendant typically must complete several agreed-upon conditions. If the defendant satisfies the prerequisite conditions, the parties mutually request that the court dismiss the case. Alternatively, the defendant proceeds to a sentencing hearing if the parties reached a plea agreement, or the defendant was found guilty at trial. Additionally, the District Attorney’s office may dismiss some or all of a criminal case, a judge may grant a motion to dismiss, or a defendant may be found not guilty at trial.



​A trial is a formal hearing where the fact finder listens to the facts, evidence, and arguments of the case. Both parties may introduce evidence via witnesses and exhibits. The prosecution must prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt to convict the defendant. If the factfinder finds the defendant guilty, the judge may sentence the defendant immediately or set the matter for a sentencing hearing. If the defendant is found not guilty, he or she is free to leave.


Plea/Sentencing Hearing

​A court hearing in which the judge decides the best method to punish and rehabilitate the defendant. A sentencing hearing follows a plea of guilty or no contest plea or a finding of guilty by a jury or judge. Both parties may argue the appropriate sentence to the court. Ultimately the judge is bound by the minimum and maximum penalties prescribed by law. Wisconsin statute determines the penalties for a particular crime.



​After sentencing, Defendants retain the right to appeal all or a portion of their sentence to the trial court or to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. 


Contact Attorney Skarie if you have questions

The guidance of an experienced and compassionate drunk driving and criminal defense attorney is invaluable in guiding you through Wisconsin criminal court procedure. Contact OWI defense attorney Dan Skarie today with any questions.