The initial appearance – your first court date.

The initial appearance is the first time the defendant appears in court after being charged with a crime.  The defendant is given notice of what the charges are against him along with what the maximum penalties are for those crimes.  The court also sets bail at the initial appearance.  Certain counties, like Milwaukee, have two different intake courts.  Although they function the same, “in custody” intake court handles defendants who are in law enforcement custody at the time of initial appearance.  “Out of custody” intake refers to initial appearances held for defendants who aren’t in law enforcement custody.

In minor criminal cases where the defendant doesn’t have a significant record, the court often gives a signature bond.  A defendant who signs a signature bond does not need to post any cash to be released, but may be liable for an amount of money if he misses court or violates other bail conditions.  Just because you didn’t pay any money doesn’t mean you’re completely free.  Often court commissioners require the defendant to maintain absolute sobriety, stay away from certain places, and avoid any contact with an alleged victim.  Sometimes pretrial supervision, such as appointments with JusticePoint, is an additional requirement.

The alternative is cash bail, which would require a certain amount of cash be posted before release.  Cash bail usually has conditions (such as no contact), like a signature bond.  Those conditions begin once the defendant posts the required cash bail.  Importantly, Wisconsin is not a commercial bail (bail bondsmen) state.  When a specific amount of bail is set, that entire amount must be paid before the defendant’s release.

If the defendant violates conditions of bail, he risks being charged with bail jumping.  Bail jumping charges are serious and often changes the trial posture of an entire case.  If I think that I can beat your substantial battery case (a felony), but you go out and smoke marijuana (in violation of an absolute sobriety requirement), the state may threaten to issue the bail jumping charge if you proceed to trial on the substantial battery case.  As your defense attorney I’m forced into a two-front war, making your criminal case much more difficult.  It is crucial that the defendant follow his conditions of bail.

Some individuals believe it isn’t important to hire an attorney at the initial appearance.  Our criminal defense attorneys disagree.  Bail is incredibly important, and often court commissioners/judges aren’t very lenient about adjusting bail once it’s set at the initial appearance.  Arguing for your release, or for reasonable bail conditions, is important from the very beginning.  Hiring an attorney is especially important at the initial appearance in a misdemeanor criminal case.  Section 971.20 of the Wisconsin Statutes requires that substitution of the trial judge occur before making any motions to the trial court and before arraignment.  In most counties, the arraignment occurs at the initial appearance.  So that means the defendant must exercise his right to substitution at the initial appearance or he’s stuck with the judge originally assigned to his case.