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Overview of Alabama Criminal Law

Outline Available in PDF Format here.

I. Offenses

A. Felony–generally an offense punishable by death or imprisonment more than one year in prison.  Examples include murder, rape, robbery, burglary, theft 1 and 2. 

B. Misdemeanor-a minor offense punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year.  Example would be DUI, theft fourth, assault third, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest.

II. Arrest – warrant/complaint/other

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

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

III. Courts-jurisdiction/venue

A. 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 can get a jury trial in Circuit Court.  Important note-the appeal must include a demand for jury trial.  If in jail can remain free pending appeal upon perfection of an appearance bond.  No appearance bond is filed court must be set down on the next available docket.

 BMunicipal Court- Violations of city ordinance all cases in the city.  Appeal to Circuit Court for jury trial.  Again the appeal must include a demand for a jury trial in the posting an appeal bond.

C. 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.

 D. Federal Court

  • Misdemeanors– Magistrate Court handles crimes committed on federal land include 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 felony case

A. Felony examination

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

B. 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.

  • Preliminary hearing is a probable cause hearing. 
  • There is no jury, just the judge who simply decides if there is enough evidence to bind the case over to wait the action of the grand jury.
  • 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 is free to take the case to the grand jury and still seek an indictment.  If indicted, the defendant will once again have to make bond and the case will proceed.

C.  Grand Jury

  • The indictment- the formal charge.
  • Usually the best advice is generally not 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.

D. Pretrial motions

  •  Motion for discovery- this would include Rule 16 discovery and Brady motion.  Generally are 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.  You are not entitled to all the evidence the state has their possession.
  • Motion suppress statements- should be famous Miranda statements, and famous (to law school students) Wong Sun fruits of the poisonous tree.
  • 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, in reality it seems like burden is on the defendant in most cases.

Exceptions to the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizures

  • Plain view;
  • Inventory;
  • Consent;
  • Incident to lawful arrest;
  • Stop and frisk;
  • Automobiles;
  • Exigent circumstances;

E.  Arraignment

  • The arraignment is formal reading of the charges and the time for your client to enter a plea to the same, either guilty or not guilty.
  • In state court when the arraignment is varies.  In most Counties most of time the arraignment may take place as a jury is being brought down from the jury venire room.
  • In federal court, it is the formal starting of the case and a trial date will be set out near future.


  1. Voir dire- time to select the actual jury from a pool of prospective jurors and develop a strategy for trial.
  2. Strike a jury- for cause and pre-emptory
  3. Opening statements- startup with one the evidence will show…
  4. State presents its case
  5. Close the state's case and suspect the motion for judgment of acquittal
  6.  The defense presents its case if any
  7. Final arguments, the state goes first than the defense, the state last
  8. Judge instructs the jury in the law
  9. Jury deliberates
  10. Jury returns a verdict
  11. Sentencing-the direct of presentence report
  12. Post- trial motions
  13. Appeals

 An individual may be eligible for an expungement following certain convictions. Learn more about expungement here.


Segal & Segal, LLC
706 Madison Street SE
Huntsville, AL 35801
(256) 533-4529
(256) 533-1678 (fax)