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Your Milwaukee Criminal Case: The Basics

Sometimes things get out of hand. Too much High Life and a person might lose control. Sometimes it's a goofball in a Vikings jersey that just sets you off. We understand that people in Milwaukee, just like anywhere else, sometimes make mistakes. Thankfully we have an orderly system of justice here in the Badger State that resolves criminal matters quickly. This article will give you an idea of how a mistake might play out in the Cream City courts.

Which Level of Crime?

The State of Wisconsin divides its criminal offenses into two categories: (1) felonies for serious offenses, and (2) misdemeanors for relatively minor offenses. Felonies come in several different classes that may determine the length of sentence if you're convicted. In summary, a felony conviction of the lowest class is punishible by up to a $10,000 fine and/or a three-and-a-half-year sentence in state prison. A conviction of the highest class may result in life imprisonment. See Wisconsin Statutes, Section 939.50 for a detailed description.

Misdemeanors come in three classes. A conviction for the lowest class may result in a $500 fine and/or a 30 day jail sentence. Misdemeanors of the highest class may result in a fine of up to $10,000 and/or a nine-month jail sentence. See Wisconsin Statutes, Section 939.51 for more on misdemeanor classifications.

Which Court?

Your criminal case will proceed in one of two levels of court, either (a) circuit court, or (b) municipal court. Cases involving minor crimes are typically heard in Milwaukee Municipal Court. Typical cases include: DUI (first offense), disorderly conduct, and trespassing. The courthouse is located at 951 N. James Lovell Street. All other cases are heard in Milwaukee County Circuit Court. The courthouse sits at 901 N. 9th Street. See FindLaw's resource page for Milwaukee Courthouses.

Private Attorney or Public Defender?

A Wisconsin State Public Defender ("WSPD") is available only for people with a qualifying low income. If you qualify, either a staff attorney will be assigned to your case or the office will appoint a certified private attorney to represent you. Most defendants have to pay at least some of the costs for a lawyer. You may wish to consider hiriing a private criminal defense attorney in Milwaukee who may have a lighter caseload and more time to devote to your defense. 

For more information, visit the Wisconsin State Public Defender's Office online. Even if you are not eligible for a WSPD, you may still qualify for a court-appointed attorney at a reduced cost. If you choose, you can always select another Milwaukee-based criminal attorney.

Order of Events

Arrest and Detention

An arrest is the typical way for a criminal case to begin. A law enforcement officer may make an arrest if he or she has probable cause to believe that the person arrested committed a crime. In Milwaukee, detainees are usually taken to the Milwaukee County Jail at 949 N. 9th Street. On occasion, a detainee might require medical attention. This may be the case if a suspect was injured in the course of a crime or arrest, or if he/she is under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. If a detainee requires medical attention, police will take him/her to the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center.

Request an Attorney Immediately

Most people are familiar with "Miranda" rights—the right to remain silent, and the right to an attorney. What most people don't know is that if you request an attorney, investigators must stop questioning you for a period of time. If you've been arrested, it's best to ask for an attorney early so that you can gather your thoughts and process what is happening.

Initial Appearance and Bail

Your first appearance in court is the "Initial Appearance." The District Atorney's office must notify you of the charges against you in the form of a "criminal complaint." You'll be told about your right to an attorney and the possibility of having a lawyer appointed to your case. This is also the stage in which the court sets your bail amount. Often the court will not require defendants to pay anything for their release. You will have to instead give your signature on a promise to return to court for your later hearings. For more serious cases, the court may require you to post cash bail.

The amount is refunded only if you appear when you are supposed to, and the court reduces the refund by any applicable fees. In the most serious cases, particularly murder, you may be held without bail. You may post bail 24 hours a day at the Milwaukee County Jail at the cashier's office on the ground floor.

Arraignment and Preliminary Examination

In misdemeanor cases, a defendant must enter a plea of "guilty," "not guilty," or "no contest." Consult with your lawyer about the potential consequences of each plea in your case.

In felony cases, you have a right to a "Preliminary Examination" prior to your arraignment. Before the court makes you enter a plea, the district attorney must show that the State has probable cause to continue with the case. A defendant cannot question the witnesses at this hearing; it is simply for the defendant to understand the nature of the accusations and ensure that the State isn't wasting everyone's time.

Pre-Trial Motions and Trial

In between the time of an arraignment and trial, both the State and defendants will submit pre-trial motions. During this time period, the parties will discuss what evidence will come into court, trial scheduling, possible plea bargains, and other matters related to the case.

Wisconsin courts must try misdemeanor cases within 60 days of a defendant's Initial Appearance. The courts must try felony cases within 90 days from the time that a party submits a request for a trial. In some cases the court may delay a felony trial, but only if it is in the best interests of justice. A complex case may take longer for both sides to prepare.

Criminal defendants have a right to a jury trial, but they may waive that right and instead have a judge decide the case. In Wisconsin, a jury is made up of twelve members, and all twelve must agree in order to convict someone of a crime.


If a judge or a jury returns a guilty verdict, you will have to appear later at a sentencing hearing. At this hearing, the judge will tell the defendant of his or her sentence. Before doing so, the judge may consider trial testimony and other relevant materials in determining the sentence.

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