Criminal defendants enjoy protections guaranteed by federal and state laws, but each state has its own methods of processing criminal defendants within its jurisdiction. This article discusses the basic procedures found in Alabama.
Arrest, Rights, and Booking
Many defendants are arrested on issuance of a warrant, while others are arrested upon probable cause or if they are observed by law enforcement in the act of committing a crime. Arresting officers must give defendants their Miranda rights—they are entitled to an attorney if being questioned and they may remain silent or risk having anything they say used against them. Low income defendants may have an attorney appointed for them.
Once arrested, a defendant is brought to a police station or facility for booking. Their personal effects are taken and stored before they are searched, photographed and fingerprinted for court and police records.
Alabama bail bondsmen have the right to interview defendants for bail determination based on their risk of flight and community connections; the nature of the offense; and the defendant's criminal history. A surety bond can be issued to secure the defendant’s release if sufficient collateral is pledged.
If in custody, a defendant must appear before a judge within 72 hours of the arrest.
Procedures for Arraignment and Plea
For misdemeanor defendants, charges are presented at the arraignment. If the defendant has no attorney, one may be appointed if a jail sentence is a possible penalty for that offense and the defendant has sufficiently low income. The hearing is continued if no attorney is present.
Felony defendants have a first appearance where they are apprised of the charges, bail is reset if applicable, and inquires are made regarding representation by an attorney. If charged by complaint, a preliminary hearing is scheduled if no indictment has been issued.
Defendants may enter the following pleas:
- Guilty: admitting to all charges
- Not guilty: denying the charges and forcing the state to prove guilt
- Nolo contendere: no dispute of the charges; considered a guilty plea but may not be evidence in a civil suit
Plea Bargaining in Alabama
Most criminal cases are resolved before trial by counsel who negotiates the charges or sentence so the defendant pleads guilty or no contest in return for waiving the right to trial and agreeing to a lighter sentence or pleading guilty to a lesser charge. Defendants must willingly, knowingly and voluntarily waive their rights and agree to a factual basis to support the charges.
Preliminary Hearing and Grand Jury Indictment
An Alabama felony defendant charged by complaint can demand a preliminary hearing to determine probable cause within 30 days of arrest. The hearing must be held within 21 days after the demand is made.
All serious felony cases are charged by grand jury indictment, rather than by complaint. If a grand jury indictment is issued, no preliminary hearing is held.
Trial and Sentencing
All criminal trials in Alabama are by a jury of 12 persons unless both parties stipulate to a lesser number. Any guilty verdict must be unanimous. If a trial in front of just a judge is more desirable, a defendant must waive his or her right to a jury trial. Misdemeanor defendants must demand a jury trial.
A judge determines sentencing and may require a pre-sentence report in any case where sentencing is discretionary or where it may be suspended altogether. The report considers the offense, the defendant’s criminal and educational history, social and family status, religious affiliations, medical and mental history, victim statements and other relevant factors.
Consult an Attorney
Procedures regarding arraignments, indictments and other procedures are not the same in all states. Consult an Alabama criminal defense attorney if you are charged with a crime.