Your first time in court can be scary; even if it's only the first time for this case. In La Crosse County, ALL non-traffic-related criminal cases, and all non-traffic ordinance cases investigated by the La Crosse County Sheriff's Department, the UWL Campus Police, and Wisconsin DNR--as well very serious traffic-related cases--will start in the criminal intake court.
"Intake" court takes place Monday through Friday at 1:30 p.m. There is a rotating schedule that determines which of the five "Branch" judges will preside, and therefore, which courtroom, or "Branch" Intake court will take place in. You should look at your Summons, bond, or citation (ticket) to determine which court your case is scheduled in. Many, many people go to the Circuit Court, when their case is actually at the La Crosse Municipal Court, or the Joint Municipal Court in Onalaska. I strongly recommend you call the Clerk of the La Crosse County Circuit Court prior to your court appearance to make sure the date and/or time on these documents are correct , because too often they are not. If you are in the wrong place when your case is called, regardless of whose fault, you can be the one who pays, in the form of a warrant for your arrest. A picture of the La Crosse County Circuit Court can be seen below.
When you get to court at 333 Vine Street, La Crosse, WI you will see the sign posted at the metal detector saying on which floor Intake Court is being held. The security guards are friendly, and they will give you further directions if you ask, or you can simply proceed to that floor. The court calendar, or docket, will be posted next to the courtroom doors. Because Intake Court usually has a lot of cases, look for the long list and that is probably the right courtroom. Look for your name. If you see a note that says "DA Decline", or words to that effect, next to your name, then your case is not being prosecuted, and you can leave. Your cash bond--if you or someone posted one--will be mailed to the person who posted it within several days, and your bond is no longer effective.
The first cases to be called in Intake Court are the people in custody, starting with the females. Therefore, if you see a lot of names before you on the list, or if there are a lot of people in the jury box wearing orange or blue jail uniforms, you probably have time for a smoke or to make some phone calls to attorneys. However, don't be late, because if your case is called and you are not there to answer, a warrant will be issued. However, if you have arrived late, do not leave. Wait until all the cases have been called, then ask to have your case recalled. That will usually result in the warrant being "quashed".
Several things can happen at intake court. Listen carefully to the Judge's opening instructions.
If you are being charged with a crime, when your case is called, you will proceed to the podium in front of the judge's bench. Usually, you will then be handed a criminal complaint, which states what charges are being brought, and then will contain a statement of "facts" that support the charges. Beginning in 2014, you will be asked to enter a plea to the charges at that time. You will be given an Order for Pretrial Conference. That document contains two dates: (1) the date you must meet with the District Attorney's office to discuss a plea offer, and (2) Status Conference date, or the date you must return back to court to inform the Court whether you will be accepting a plea offer and pleading guilty or no contest, or requesting a trial.
People charged with crimes, whether misdemeanor or felony, have a "right" to an attorney. Therefore, if you are without an attorney, you will also be asked if you plan to hire one. If you do want an attorney--and you darn well should if you have been charged with a crime-- and you don't think you can afford one, you will be given directions to the Public Defender's Office. Go see them without delay.
If your charges include at least one felony charge, you will be asked whether you want to have a Preliminary Hearing, or probable cause hearing. That is a hearing wherein the prosecutor will have to put on sufficient testimony and/or
evidence to show that you "probably" committed a felony or felonies. If you have not already talked to an attorney,
you can ask the Judge for time to get an attorney. Depending on your case, the Judge will either give you more time before making that decision, and reschedule your Initial Appearance, or will simply say that he/she is scheduling the Preliminary Hearing, and tell you to see the Public Defender or hire an attorney before that date.
Sometimes--and in recent years this has become more frequent--the prosecutor will tell the Judge that they need more time to prepare their charges. In that event, the Judge will usually give them a day or two, and will order you to return. It's never about your convenience.
Whatever the nature of the criminal charge, a bond must be established before you leave. If you were not held in custody for court, the chances are very good that you are going to be allowed to leave after your case has been called, so don't skip court out of fear. It will only make things worse.
Before setting bond, the Judge will usually first ask the prosecutor what his/her position is on bond. They can ask for a cash bond or a signature bond, depending on the nature of the case. They can also ask for whatever conditions they feel are necessary to protect the public and/or ensure your appearance back in court, including testing for alcohol or drugs, GPS monitoring, curfew, etc. If you have already been arrested and given a bond by the jail or arresting officer, they may simply ask that the bond continue, or may ask that it be altered. If you have not been arrested previously, you will probably be given a "booking complaint", and told to go to the jail after your court appearance, to be "booked", i.e. fingerprinted, photographed, and registered.
Before your bond is set by the Judge, you may be asked what your position is on bond. This is where having a lawyer with you is very important. However, if you do not, then DO NOT SAY ANYTHING ABOUT THE FACTS UNDERLYING YOUR CASE. This is not the time for a trial, and you are not going to talk your way out of the charges at this time. Countless times I have been in court and watched as some nervous person said something that could harm their case, including outright confessions. Remember, you have been charged with a crime: "Anything you say can be used against you."
Once the Judge has ordered the type and conditions of bond, you will be pointed to a table in the courtroom where the Judge's assistant will be preparing your bond. You will be asked to sign it. You will be given a copy. If you have been ordered to do other monitoring, you may be given further instructions. Do not lose your paperwork, and do not forget the date and time you must return to court. You can now leave the courtroom.
NON-CRIMINAL, OR "FORFEITURE" VIOLATIONS
The major differences for people who are charged with non-criminal violations: (1) they do not have the "RIGHT" to an attorney before they can be prosecuted, but they certainly have the right to consult with or to hire their own at their own expense; (2) there is no automatic right to a jury trial; and (3) the standard of proof is "clear, satisfacotry and convincing, NOT "beyond a reasonable doubt".
Sometimes, however, as is the case with Underage Drinking violations, they will be asked if they want to participate in some kind of program, the completion of which will result in dismissal of the charge or reduction in the penalty. In that case, you will be told to complete the program, and you will likely be told to come back for a future court date if you do not.
Even if you are asked to enter a plea, as is more fully described fully in another article on this blog, you have the statutory right to a continuance before entering a plea. If you do not ask for one, you will not be given one. Even if you do ask for one, the Judge may enter a not guilty plea for you and tell you to meet with the prosecutor. More on that.
If you do enter a plea, the choices are "guilty", "not guilty", or "no contest" (nolo contendre). "No contest" just means that you do not confess guilt but still agree to be convicted. If the actions that led to you being charged could also result in you being sued, such as in a car or boating accident, then this plea may be better than "guilty", which could be used to establish your fault in the lawsuit.
If you plead guilty or no contest, the judge will then proceed to sentence you to pay some monetary amount. The prosecutor will be asked their position, and you will have a chance to say what you think is appropriate. Usually, the amount of the forfeiture is far less than the mandatory court costs and surcharges imposed. You can also ask for time to pay.
If you plead not guilty, the Judge will usually order you to meet with the prosecutor to discuss possible solutions prior to setting the case for trial. However, if you say "not guilty", or the judge enters your not guilty plea for you, then if your case qualifies for a jury trial, you will have only 10 days to request the jury trial in writing and pay the jury fee. If you do not, your trial will be to a judge only. This is a trap for the unwary, because, usually, the meeting with the prosecutor is AFTER the 10 days has passed.