Seal of Dane County County of Dane
Dane County District Attorney

Court Process and Information

Steps in a Criminal Case

A Crime Is Allegedly Committed

Police are notified and investigate an alleged crime by interviewing victims, witnesses, suspects, gathering physical evidence, taking photographs, measuring the crime scene, and taking fingerprint and DNA samples if available.

A Person Is Arrested

Police may arrest a suspect on the spot or if the officer has probable cause to believe a misdemeanor or felony was committed. The police may refer the case to the District Attorney’s Office suggesting potential charges.

The District Attorney’s Office Reviews The Case

A prosecuting attorney will determine whether a person should be charged with a crime by thoroughly reviewing all reports and records, witness statements, and the suspect’s prior criminal or traffic record. The criminal case is either charged or declined.

Criminal Charges Are Issued Or Declined

If a case is charged, the prosecutor issues a criminal complaint charging the suspect with committing a misdemeanor, felony, or both. Persons charged with a misdemeanor may be able to post bail and be released from jail. Persons charged with a felony crime must wait for their initial appearance in Arraignment Court.

Initial Appearance

This is the first court hearing after someone has been arrested and charged with a crime. The judge or court commissioner informs the defendant what the charge(s) are, maximum penalty if convicted, and their rights to an attorney. If the defendant is still in jail, bail and any other conditions are set. Often a “No Contact Order” will be imposed, which prohibits the defendant from having any contact with a person who is a victim or a witness in the case.

Entering A Plea

In misdemeanor cases, the defendant is asked to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. In felony cases, a date is set for a preliminary hearing.

Status Conference

A court hearing to determine the status, or progress and direction, of a case.

Preliminary Hearing

This is an evidentiary hearing in which the District Attorney’s office must prove to a judge or court commissioner that there is enough evidence to believe the defendant committed a felony.


A criminal defendant's first appearance on the formal charges before a judge. The defendant is formally charged and enters a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. This occurs at the initial appearance in misdemeanor cases and at some point following bind over at preliminary hearings in felony cases.

Pretrial Conference / Court Settlement Conference

A court hearing to resolve issues in advance of a trial; courts sometimes will accept the entry of guilty or no contest pleas at these hearings.

Plea Hearing

A hearing at which the defendant responds to a criminal charge by entering a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. A plea agreement or plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant for the defendant to plead guilty or no contest under certain terms and conditions, which must be approved by the judge, to prevent going to trial.


A hearing at which evidence is presented to a judge or jury to determine whether the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A defendant may be found guilty of all, some, or none of the criminal charges.


A court’s decision as to the penalties appropriate for crimes established by convictions.


A defendant may appeal their case after sentencing.

Post-Conviction Motion Hearing

A defendant may be revoked for not following the terms of his probation. Post-Conviction Motions may be filed to deal with any post-conviction issues.