The initial appearance – your first court date.
The initial appearance is the first time the defendant appears in court regarding criminal charges. The courts provides the defendant notice of what charges he faces, 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. But for the constraint of the defendant, these two courtrooms operate the same.
In minor criminal cases where the defendant doesn’t have a significant record, the court often gives a signature bond. A signature bond does not require a defendant to post any cash bail. However, if the defendant misses court or violates other bail conditions, he’s liable for this amount.
Unfortunately, not paying money towards bail does not equate to complete freedom. On the contrary, frequently 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 cooperation with JusticePoint, is an additional requirement.
The alternative is cash bail, which requires the defendant to pay an amount of money prior to 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. The defendant must pay the specified amount of bail prior to release. Some states have 10% rules, which only require payment of a portion of the cash bail. Similarly to the bail bondsmen scenario, Wisconsin does not allow for only partial payment of bail.
Violating terms of bail leads the potential of bail jumping charges. Bail jumping charges are serious, and often change 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.