This year, we have published several blogs dedicated to "frequently asked (criminal law) questions". Whenever possible, we endeavor to avoid legalese by providing articles in layman's terms. The focus of this blog is pretrial conferences in Macomb County District Courts.
What is a pretrial conference?
A pretrial conference is a meeting that is attended by the attorneys for the parties in a criminal or civil case. The major purposes of a pretrial conference are to facilitate resolution of a case, management of a case for trial or management of a case regarding pertinent issues (as listed below). A pretrial conference is scheduled after either a criminal or civil case is filed with the court, a case number and a Judge are assigned. In Macomb County, criminal pretrial conferences are held soon after the arraignment. For misdemeanors, which occur in Macomb County, the pretrial conference will always be held at the district court (click here for complete listing of links to Macomb County District Courts). Felony pretrial conferences can occur on the date scheduled for a preliminary examination and again after the case is bound over to the circuit court. A person charged with a crime (the defendant) is required to be present on the date scheduled for pretrial conference. However, he or she is usually not allowed in the conference room with the attorneys. On the other hand, police officers and victim's rights advocates with court business are allowed in the conference room. Likewise, an alleged victim may be present at the pretrial conference as the prosecutor must obtain the victim's consent for a plea bargain in most criminal cases.
The direction of a criminal case is often determined after a pretrial conference. Pretrial conferences are a vital tool, which a skilled criminal defense lawyer will utilize for several reasons:
- Promote dismissal of the charge(s) under certain circumstances
- Negotiate a favorable plea bargain
- Address bond, bond conditions and/or release from jail
- Adjourn the pretrial conference to seek a deviation when strict policy obstructs a plea bargain
- Request modification of no-contact order (domestic violence cases)
- Negotiate restitution when financial losses are claimed
- Meet with the Judge when judicial support is needed to discuss various matters, such as sentence bargains, creative plea bargains or to simplify issues of the case when set for trial
- Size up the prosecution's case, witnesses and evidence
- Request copies of discovery (police reports, videos, chemical test results)
- Schedule one or more motion dates to attack the evidence, or to weaken the case
- Set future pretrial conference date(s) when delay can tend to improve the defense position
- Schedule the case for a bench or jury trial
Factoid: A person who is accused of a crime is not considered a "defendant" until that person is formally charged with a crime. Our criminal defense lawyers never refer to our clients as "defendants" when speaking to the court or prosecutor because of negative connotations. We prefer to refer to our clients by their given name or "the accused".
What is the attorney's role at a pretrial conference?
The best way for me to summarize an attorney's role at a pretrial conference is by mentioning a few passages from the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct.
A lawyer is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.
As advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client's position under the rules of the adversary system.
As negotiator, a lawyer seeks a result advantageous to the client but consistent with requirements of honest dealing with others.
What is the defendant's role at a pretrial conference?
Macomb County (as well as Oakland, Wayne and St.Clair), require the attendance of the defendant at the pretrial conference. If the defendant "fails to appear", an arrest warrant may be issued. Prior to the pretrial conference, our criminal defense attorneys discuss goals and/or strategies with our clients. Even though the defendant is not present in the conference room, he or she is well informed of our intentions. We advise our clients to be punctual, dress appropriately and to refrain from discussing their case with anyone at the courthouse. We assume that our client's conduct is "being monitored". Therefore, we discourage any interaction with the victim or any conduct which draws unfavorable attention. Any progress towards working out a deal can be blown if a client offends certain key decision makers at the pretrial conference or at any other time while a criminal case is pending!
Is there an appearance in the courtroom after the pretrial conference?
After the pretrial conference, the defendant and his or her attorney will appear in open court and inform the Judge of the results. The Judge has the final say regarding the outcome of a pretrial conference. For example, certain plea bargains may be against the Judge's own policy and may require some persuasion and legal authority. In addition, the Judge may show frustration when the parties are attempting to adjourn (delay) cases. Since adjournments tend to clog court dockets, the Judge will require that "good cause" be shown.
Our experience is that a pretrial conference is an invaluable opportunity to advocate on behalf of our clients. Advocacy includes elements of assertiveness and diplomacy. We often can achieve a disposition after the pretrial conference. This may result in a plea bargain, which may have the effect of dismissing the criminal charges in exchange for completion of probation. It is our job to protect our client's rights and seek the best possible outcome, which may mean saving a client from being exposed to egregious facts and the expenses of an unnecessary trial. The defendant remains the ultimate decision-maker when presented with options after the conclusion of a pretrial conference.
Some other important things to know about pretrial conferences:
-Denial of a pretrial conference may constitute a denial of "due process" rights. US vs. Ataya, 864 F2d 1324 (1988)
-No admissions made by the defendant's lawyer in the setting of a pretrial conference are admissible against the defendant during trial.
-Pretrial Conferences for federal criminal cases are governed by Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 17.1
The addresses and phone numbers for all Macomb County district courts can be found at the following links: