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Overview of Alabama Criminal Law

  1. Offenses
  2. A felony is generally an offense punishable by death or imprisonment of more than one year. Examples include murder, rape, robbery, burglary, and theft.
  3. Misdemeanor-a minor offense is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year. Examples would be DUI, theft, fourth assault third, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest.
  4. Arrest – warrant/complaint/other

     Bail – is set pursuant to Alabama rules of judicial administration.

  • Property bond, property owners required. The property's assessed value must equal or sometimes exceed the bond amount.
  • Pretrial release
  • Commercial bonding company-generally requires 10 to 15% of the bond plus some collateral.
  • Cash bond

III. Courts-jurisdiction/venue

  1. District Court Jurisdiction- Misdemeanor trials and preliminary hearings for felony cases. There is no jury trial. The defendant can appeal a misdemeanor conviction from this court and get a jury trial in Circuit Court.  Important note-the appeal must include a demand for a jury trial.  If in jail, can remain free pending appeal upon the perfection of an appearance bond.  No appearance bond is filed. The court must be set down on the next available docket.
  2. Municipal Court- Violations of city ordinance in all cases in the city. Appeal to Circuit Court for a jury trial.  Again the appeal must include a demand for a jury trial in the posting of an appeal bond.
  3. Circuit Court- Original jurisdiction in felony cases in all appeals from either the District Court's court than it is right to a jury trial.
  4. Federal Court
  • Misdemeanors– Magistrate Court handles crimes committed on federal land, including areas such as Wheeler Refuge, Redstone Arsenal, Little River Canyon, and Native American land.
  • Felony– Federal District Court with criminal offenses involving interstate nexus.

III. Steps in a felony case

  1. Felony examination

At this hearing, the judge simply asks the defendant if he has an attorney; if he does not and cannot afford one, the judge may appoint an attorney.

  1. Preliminary hearing

In the District Court, the defendant has 30 days after his arrest to file a written demand for a preliminary hearing.  This is a statutory right but not a constitutional right.

  • A preliminary hearing is a probable cause hearing.
  • There is no jury, just the judge who decides if there is enough evidence to bind the case over to wait for the grand jury's action.
  • The defense normally uses this to discover what evidence the state has against the defendant.
  • Normally the defendant does not take the stand.
  • If the judge finds no probable cause and dismisses the case, the state can take the case to the grand jury and still seek an indictment. If indicted, the defendant will once again have to make a bond and the case will proceed.
  1. Grand Jury
  • The indictment- the formal charge.
  • Usually, the best advice is generally not to allow your client to appear before the grand jury. If they do, it is important to know that the defense attorney cannot be present in the room.
  1. Pretrial motions
  • Motion for discovery- this would include Rule 16 discovery and Brady motion. An accused is generally entitled to evidence the state has to include statements by your client, co-conspirators, the results of tests performed, and other documents that may rely on in court to prove their guilt. Unfortunately, a person accused of a crime is not entitled to all the evidence the state has possession. One of the most common items of evidence that is withheld at the statements of witnesses. In some instances, the prosecution will provide the substance of the statements; in others, the defense may not get the statements at all.
  • Motion to Suppress Statements-a defense lawyer may claim that their client's statements were obtained illegally and therefore should not be permitted in court.
  • Motion to Suppress Search And Seizure- this applies to evidence seized from the person or place that the defense alleges was seized in violation defendant's constitutional rights. The burden is on the government to prove they complied with the U.S. Constitution; however, it is quite common for judges to “side” with the government's arguments, and in reality, a defendant must convince the judge that the government's evidence is due to be excluded from the trial.
  • A defense lawyer will also file pretrial motions saying that there was some violation of their client's rights in other ways.
  • E. Arraignment
  • The arraignment is the formal reading of the charges, and at this time, the accused will either plead guilty or not guilty. In some instances, the accused may also plead not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect or not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.
  • Arraignment will vary within different jurisdictions in Alabama and sometimes with different judges. In Madison County, arraignment usually occurs well before the actual trial, but it can occur as a jury is brought into court.
  • In federal court, it is the formal starting of the case, and a trial date will be set out soon.
  • F. TRIAL
  • Voir dire-the process of jury selection is called “Voir Dire”. Here the jury is selected j from a pool of prospective jurors.
  • Opening statements-the lawyers will tell the jury what they anticipate the evidence will show.
  • First, the state of Alabama will present its case.
  • After the state has rested its case normally a defense lawyer will ask for the client to be acquitted. In most instances, the judge will not agree.
  • The defense may present its case if he chooses to do so, although it is perfectly acceptable under Alabama law for the defendant not to put forth a defense and to simply argue that the state has not proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the accused is guilty.
  • In final arguments, the state goes first, then the defense, and the state last.
  • The judge instructs the jury in the law
  • Jury deliberates
  • The jury returns a verdict
  • If the accused is convicted, the next stage is sentencing. The judge may direct that a presentence report be completed or the defendant may ask for one.
  • After a trial resulting in a conviction, the defendant's lawyer may file various post-trial motions.
  • Appeals. A convicted person may choose to appeal his case to a higher court. An appeal to the Alabama Criminal Court of Appeals with the Alabama Supreme Court or federal court will focus on legal issues, not factual issues, and most circumstances. Facts have already been decided at the trial court level, and the higher court is looking to see whether or not laws were correctly followed; they will accept the facts as found by either the judge or jury. The only exception would be if, after accepting the facts, the higher court found the evidence was insufficient for a guilty verdict.
  • An individual may be eligible for an expungement depending on the outcome of their case. Under current Alabama law, even a person convicted of a crime can seek an expungement; however, the likelihood of their success will depend on various factors. Elsewhere on this website, we discuss expungement in depth.