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Pretrial Conference

Further Readings

A meeting of the parties to an action and their attorneys held before the court prior to the commencement of actual courtroom proceedings.

A pretrial conference is a meeting of the parties to a case conducted prior to trial. The conference is held before the trial judge or a magistrate, a judicial officer who possesses fewer judicial powers than a judge. A pretrial conference may be held prior to trial in both civil and criminal cases. A pretrial conference may be requested by a party to a case, or it may be ordered by the court. Generally, the term pretrial conference is used interchangeably with the term pretrial hearing.

A pretrial conference may be conducted for several reasons: (1) expedite disposition of the case, (2) help the court establish managerial control over the case, (3) discourage wasteful pretrial activities, (4) improve the quality of the trial with thorough preparation, and (5) facilitate a settlement of the case.

Pretrial conferences are conducted in criminal cases to decide matters that do not inquire into the defendant's guilt or innocence. Under rule 17.1 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, pretrial conferences for criminal cases may be conducted to promote a fair and expeditious trial. In practice, federal and state courts use the pretrial conference in criminal cases to decide such preliminary matters as what evidence will be excluded from trial and what witnesses will be allowed to testify.

In a civil pretrial conference, the judge or magistrate, with the help of the attorneys, may (1) formulate and simplify the issues in the case, (2) eliminate frivolous claims or defenses, (3) obtain admissions of fact and documents to avoid unnecessary proof, (4) identify witnesses and documents, (5) make schedules for the submission of pretrial briefs and motions, (6) make rulings on motions submitted before the conference, (7) set dates for further conferences, (8) discuss the possibility of a settlement, and (9) discuss the consolidation or management of large, complex cases. After the conference, the judge or magistrate issues an order reflecting the results of the conference, and the order controls the future course of the case.

Generally, the substance of a pretrial conference for a criminal case is the same as that for a civil case. At the conference the judge or magistrate may make rulings on motions, eliminate repetitive evidence, and set schedules. If a preliminary issue arises after the pretrial conference, a party may request a special pretrial hearing with the court to address the issue. (This special hearing marks the distinction between pretrial hearing and pretrial conference, when such a distinction is made.) In the alternative, the parties may address such an issue in court on the first day of trial, out of the presence of the jury.

All cases are guided by procedural rules that allow parties to obtain relevant evidence from other parties. The process of turning over evidence is called discovery, and the rules that apply to obtaining evidence are called discovery rules. In civil cases, discovery refers to the right of either party to obtain evidence from the other, but in a criminal case, discovery generally refers to the right of the defendant's attorney to have access to information necessary to prepare a defense. Discovery issues are a common topic in pretrial conferences. Discovery orders that were issued prior to a pretrial conference may be reviewed for compliance at a pretrial conference, and new discovery orders may be issued after a pretrial conference.

Criminal defendants enjoy more procedural protections than do civil defendants, and the judge or magistrate must be careful to protect those rights. Generally, no criminal defendant who has requested assistance of counsel may be required to attend a pretrial conference without an attorney. No admissions made by the defendant or the defendant's lawyer during the conference may be used against the defendant in a trial unless the admissions are written and signed by the defendant and the defendant's attorney.

The judge or magistrate assigned to the case can choose to hold a pretrial conference, but the denial of a pretrial conference may be an unconstitutional denial of DUE PROCESS rights. For example, in a criminal case, a defendant has a due process right to a pretrial hearing when the defendant claims that a prosecutor has breached a plea agreement (United States v. Ataya, 864 F.2d 1324 [7th Cir. 1988]).

Criminal defendants must raise some issues before trial in a pretrial motion. Pretrial motions are specific requests for favorable orders from the court on particular issues. Under the Uniform Rules of Criminal Procedure, a set of model rules written by the American Law Institute and adopted by many jurisdictions, a defendant should lose the opportunity to raise the following issues if they are not raised prior to trial: defenses and objections based on defects in the indictment or formal charging instrument; requests regarding discovery, or disclosure of evidence; requests to suppress or exclude from trial potential testimony or other evidence; requests for severing the trial in cases involving codefendants; requests for the dismissal of the case; and requests for transfer of the case to another jurisdiction.

Similar requirements are imposed on prosecutors. The prosecution must tell the defendant prior to trial of its intention to use certain evidence, such as evidence obtained as a result of a search or seizure, wiretap, or other ELECTRONIC SURVEILLANCE mechanism; evidence culled from a confession, admission, or statement made by the defendant; and evidence relating to a lineup, show-up, picture, or voice identification of the defendant (Uniform Rules of Criminal Procedure 422(a)(1)).

Pretrial proceedings vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions courts have bifurcated the pretrial conference into dispositional conferences and trial management conferences. In St. Paul, Minnesota, for example, the district court schedules a trial management conference to discuss administrative aspects of the case, such as scheduling. The courts also schedule a dispositional conference in which the parties may discuss the possibility of a plea bargain or settlement. If no agreement between the parties is forthcoming at the dispositional conference, the case proceeds to trial, and the court schedules no further meetings between the parties until trial. The parties are, nonetheless, free to continue negotiating, and they also may request a special pretrial hearing if an issue arises after the conference but prior to trial.

The first pretrial conference in the United States was held in Michigan in 1929. Over the years, as courts became more crowded, the pretrial conference became more important. Pretrial conferences save valuable time for courts and jurors by narrowing the focus of the trial and resolving preliminary matters. They also assist the court in the fair and impartial administration of justice by facilitating discovery and reducing the element of surprise at trial. Pretrial conferences are so important in civil cases that a court may order litigants to appear at a pretrial conference and impose fines on them if they refuse to appear (G. Heileman Brewing Co. v. Joseph Oat Corp., 871 F.2d 648 [7th Cir. 1989]).

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