Typically crimes involving a maximum penalty of a year or greater in prison are called felonies. A felony is the most severe criminal charge in Wisconsin. There are different classes of felonies carrying different penalties. The most serious penalty is a prison sentence. Further, if you are convicted of a felony, not only do you face prison time, you also face potential fines and you can lose certain rights, such as the right to possess a firearm or deportation from the country, if you are not a citizen.
In a felony case, you are entitled to what is called a preliminary hearing. This is a hearing where the state has to prove there is reason to believe a felony was committed and you are the person who probably committed the felony. At this hearing, the state presents testimony by witnesses and/or provides evidence to the court. The defendant also has the right to present evidence or testimony at a preliminary hearing. In addition, your attorney can cross-examine witnesses and ask questions of the witnesses who testify against you. At the conclusion of the hearing, a Court Commissioner or Judge will make a determination as to whether there are sufficient grounds for the case to move forward. If enough evidence is not presented to establish you probably committed a felony, the case would then be dismissed.
Frankly, in most cases in Wisconsin, the court finds the defendant probably committed a felony. Nevertheless, there are several reasons to have the hearing. For example, the hearing allows you to see what type of witnesses the state has. At the hearing you and your attorney may gain additional information you didn’t have prior to the hearing. Further, you may bring out information that the district attorney didn’t know, which could lead to a favorable outcome for you.
Conversely, you can waive or give up your right to this hearing and still be entitled to a trial. Once you waive your right to a preliminary hearing, you never get that right back. There may be several strategic reasons why you would want to waive a preliminary hearing. This is something you should discuss in detail with your felony attorney.
If the State did meet its burden of proof at the hearing, or if you waived the hearing, you are then bound over for an arraignment. At an arraignment, you are provided a document called the Information, which details the specific charges and penalties you are facing and must defend against. You would then enter a plea to the charges contained in the information. The most common plea entered at this stage is a “not guilty” plea. From here, the case moves forward to various hearing dates, such as Motion Hearings, Pre-trial Conferences, and/or Status Conference dates.
Next, you will have two options in your case. You can either enter into what is called a plea agreement or you can have a trial.