You were having a blissful Saturday all to yourself. Your husband's old fraternity brothers from your UA days were in town and you told your husband you needed them out of your hair. They set off early in the morning to get some golfing in at the Frank House course and you told them not to come back until dinnertime. After plenty of quiet time at home, you were feeling refreshed when your phone started ringing. It turned out the boys had been drinking all day and there had been an "incident." Your husband had been arrested.
What do you do? What happens now? Here is a basic guide to help you navigate through a criminal case in Birmingham.
One of the first encounters in a criminal case in Birmingham is generally with an officer from the Birmingham Police Department or the Jefferson County Sheriff. In the more serious cases, there may follow a trip to the Birmingham City Jail or the Jefferson County Jail. A criminal case will likely be prosecuted by the Jefferson County District Attorney, and depending on financial circumstances, may be defended by the Jefferson County Public Defender's Office. Court hearings will likely be held at the 10th Judicial Circuit Court Jefferson County Courthouse or the Birmingham Municipal Court.
Classification of Crimes
In Birmingham and the rest of Alabama, criminal offenses are designated as felonies, misdemeanors, or violations. A felony is considered the most serious type of offense, and the punishment is the most severe. For example, a Class A felony (the most serious of the felonies) is punishable by life imprisonment, whereas a violation is punishable by county jail time not to exceed 30 days.
How a crime is classified impacts other aspects of the case, as well. For instance, in Jefferson County Court, misdemeanors are generally heard in the district court division, whereas felonies are generally heard in the circuit court division.
Booking and Bail
Following arrest, the accused is generally taken into police custody and "booked" or "processed." This is when photographs ("mug shots") and fingerprints are taken; information about the suspect and the alleged crime is gathered and entered into the system; and the accused is placed in a local jail or police holding cell.
Then, in order to be released home, bail must generally be posted. Bail is essentially money provided to the court that guarantees appearance at the court hearings. Basically, bail will be returned if you show up, but kept if you do not. There is also the possibility of an "own recognizance" release that allows you to go home without posting bail, and signing a document promising you will return instead.
The first court appearance is often the arraignment. This is when charges are read and the defendant is asked to enter his plea (guilty, not guilty, no contest). Criminal cases are often resolved by way of plea bargain, (essentially the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a lighter sentence or dismissal of some charges), but some do proceed to trial.
If your case is headed toward trial, prior to that stage, the defense attorney will often make a variety of "pre-trial motions" in which arguments are made that certain evidence should be excluded, certain witnesses should not testify, or even that the case should be dismissed altogether.
The trial itself generally consists of the following phases:
- Selection of the jury
- Opening statements by the prosecutor and defense
- Testimony of witnesses (including cross examination)
- Closing arguments by the prosecutor and defense
- Instructions provided to jury by judge
- Jury Deliberation
Check out this FindLaw section on Criminal Trials for a more detailed explanation of the trial phases, frequently asked questions and more.
Do You Need An Attorney?
It is strongly recommended that you retain a defense attorney if you or a loved one is facing criminal charges. An attorney can help you develop an effective defense strategy, negotiate the best possible plea bargain, explain the legal rules and terms, help you deal with the emotional aspects, and more. If you can't afford a private attorney, check with the Jefferson County Public Defender's Office to see whether they can help you.