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DUI (OWI) Legal Process in Wisconsin

Once a driver has been arrested for OWI, there is a legal process that will be followed.  Wisconsin has a multi- step process, and depending on the severity of the charge, the steps may take on a different look.

The first court appearance following an arrest for OWI in Wisconsin is called a First Appearance/Misdemeanor Arraignment.  During this step, the driver will go before a judge who will inform them of the criminal charges that have been filed, as well as the maximum penalties that could be applied.  Depending on the county where they are located, they may be asked to enter a plea.  Should the driver elect to plead guilty, then the judge will impose a sentence.  However, if the driver decides to plead not guilty, then a date will be set for trial.  Some counties do not require OWI offenders to enter a plea until after a pretrial conference has taken place.  In some cases, the judge may set a bond or bail at the time of arraignment to ensure that the driver will appear at later court dates.  Persons who are required to post a bond will be held in custody until the required amount of bond has been posted.

In the instances that the driver is arrested for a felony OWI offense, then the driver will follow a different process.  Persons charged with a felony offense will have a right to request a preliminary hearing at the initial appearance.  Should the driver be arrested for a felony charge, then the first step will be a preliminary hearing.  These are only conducted in felony OWI cases.  During this step, the only issue to be determined is whether there is probable cause to believe that a felony OWI offense was committed, and that the accused was in fact the person who committed the crime.  Additionally, testimony from witnesses and alleged victims may be taken.  Should the court conclude that probable cause does not exist, and then the charges will be dismissed.  However, should the judge find that probable cause does exist; the case will be set for trial.

Once it has been determined that there is probable cause for a felony arrest, the driver’s next step will be the Felony Arraignment hearing.  During this hearing, the driver will enter a plea to the charges.  The possible pleas are guilty, not guilty, and not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.  Additionally, bond issues may also be dealt with during this phase of the process.  If a plea of not guilty is entered, the case will be set for trial.  If the driver enters a guilty plea, the judge will impose a sentence.

A next important step in the OWI process is the pretrial hearing.  The purpose of a pretrial hearing is to update the court on the status of the case.  Issues of discovery may be dealt with, as well as any problems with scheduling that may exist.  A pretrial conference is an opportunity for the defense attorney to meet with the prosecutor to negotiate a plea.  If a plea agreement is reached, it will be read to the judge and entered officially on the record.  If no plea agreement is made, the case will proceed to trial.  Should there be any issues that need to be resolved prior to trial, the defense attorney may file a motion.  The most common motions in OWI cases are motions to suppress certain evidence, such as chemical test results.  Once a motion is filed, a hearing regarding the motion will be held.  At this hearing, testimony may be taken from witnesses and the police involved in the case.  If a motion to suppress evidence is granted, the evidence will not be admissible at the trial.

The next major step in the process is the actual trial.  For a first offense OWI in Wisconsin, the offense is not classified as a misdemeanor offense, but rather it is classified as a civil forfeiture.  Because of this classification, the driver does not have a right to a jury trial for their first offense OWI.  However, a jury trial may be requested as long as the request is written, timely submitted, and the driver pays the fee for a jury.  Both misdemeanor and felony OWI cases have a right to a trial by a jury.  The judge will preside over the case and resolve issues of law, while the jury will determine issues of fact and make the final determination as to the guilt or innocence of the driver.  The verdict must be unanimous, or another trial with a new jury will be held.  Should a verdict of not guilty be reached, the case will be dismissed.  However, should the jury reach a guilty verdict, and then the case will proceed to sentencing.

Should the driver be found guilty, he has the right to appeal.  The request for an appeal must be in writing, and must be made in a timely fashion.  If the request does not follow this protocol, then the right to an appeal will be considered to be waived and the driver will be subject to the original ruling.


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