Courtroom Insider: You’ve Just Been Charged. Now What?

Published on: 12/20/2012


Maybe it’s not something you’ve ever really considered. After all, you might be telling yourself, “I’m a law abiding citizen. Why would I need to know about what happens if I were to be charged with a crime?”

The truth is, even generally law abiding citizens could find themselves staring at criminal charges one day. For example, consider the problem of drinking and driving. What if you’ve made that mistake before and are now charged as a repeat OWI offender? Let’s take a look at the legal process you would be facing.

First of all, at our firm we like to see people face to face as soon as possible. I always think this is important because the person being charged needs to have a real connection with the attorney. We need to be speaking the same language. Are you comfortable? Are you grasping what is happening and that after being charged with a criminal offense, in effect, your life is being placed in the hands of another person?

Using OWI as an example, there are always different paths we take. As a lawyer, I need to examine your legal situation, your stop and your arrest, the blood draw or intoximeter test. The big question, of course, is did you operate a motor vehicle while you were intoxicated or over the .08 blood alcohol level? That’s the legal aspect of the case.

At the same time, we look at an alternate path. You have allegedly driven under the influence of alcohol and we need to make sure that there is treatment in place for your benefit because we don’t need any “repeat customers” here. It’s in your and the court’s best interest because treatment is something the court will look at as it fashions its sentence.

We look at the legal aspects of the case but at the same time, the person being charged needs to get involved in treatment with either an agency picked by their insurance company, one that works with the criminal justice system or one that we can recommend.

In Waukesha County, if this is your second OWI court appearance, you will be provided with the charging document or criminal complaint. This document will list the charge or charges along with a summary of the facts in the case and alleging what happened establishing as more probable than not that the person being charged actually committed the crime. The document will also list the penalties including the fine, potential jail time, revocation of driver’s license and an ignition interlock device for repeat offenders.

The court also has the option of setting a variety of bails. Under the bail statutes, the court can require cash bail or let you out on a signature bond. This insures that you will avail yourself to the jurisdiction of the court and that you won’t commit any new crimes and will listen to the courts direction.   It means there will be no drinking and no operating a vehicle without a valid driver’s license. When you sign your name, you are making this promise and the only time you would have to pay that cash amount is if you fail to comply with your promise.

Waukesha County also uses a bail monitoring program called Wisconsin Community Services (WCS). This program conducts sobriety testing, for example. In certain cases, they will require you to wear a bracelet that detects when alcohol has been consumed because of the perspiration and effect on the skin. Such bracelets are typically required for 90 days before they can be removed.

Once you’ve been advised of what you’ve been charged with, the typical next course of action is an arraignment where a not guilty plea is usually entered. Some people find that confusing because they know they did drive under the influence of alcohol. This procedure at the arraignment assures that you are preserving your right to have a jury trial, bring motions, review discovery evidence, etc. It’s just another important step in the process. At this point, a date is made for an appearance before a Circuit Court judge and the case proceeds from there.

What we’ve just outlined is the court process. But what about the human elements involved? For example, attorneys and judges maintain important working relationships. Trust and integrity play a crucial role in how each case is handled. If the judge and the attorneys have solid working relationships and there is genuine trust on both sides, I believe it will benefit my client in a number of ways.

The most obvious benefit is the judge’s respect for the lawyer’s position if the case gets to a sentencing hearing. Or, if there is further litigation, the judge trusts that the attorneys aren’t just throwing motions out there for frivolous reasons.

For example, Huppertz & Powers doesn’t file these types of motions every day but when we do, the judge knows we have a valid reason for doing so. Another benefit to the client is that the judge knows that the attorneys will make sure that their client keeps up with treatment and will comply as best they can with the bail conditions.

There’s no such thing as a “get out of jail free” circumstance just because the lawyers know the judge. However, common respect between the judge and the lawyers helps assure that each case is handled properly. In addition, these positive working relationships give attorneys better insights into knowing what a judge’s proclivities are in certain cases, what they want to hear and what they don’t want to hear during the proceedings.

This allows us to direct our clients in a way that will be in their best interest, not only in the eyes of the court but for their overall best interests. In addition, if a lawyer comes to court with a well-thought-out plan, the court won’t be stuck with, ‘Here we go again, asking for minimums’ or taking other stances for absolutely no reason. There’s no scheme that will take up court time and slow down the entire process.

The facts are the facts. The manner in which they are presented, in a legitimate fashion, makes it more likely for the judge to react with, “That does make sense. I will take that suggestion” and make a move that is in line with their thought process.

Maybe this take on the procedural side of the legal process is a bit more than you really wanted to know and, hopefully, more than you’ll ever need to know. At the same time, understanding how the court system works could spare you some unnecessary anxiety down the road.