What You Need to Know About the Legal Process in Madison County, Alabama
Updated: May 27, 2019
From Arrest to Trial
If you watch any legal show on t.v. or in the movies, you will notice that a person will often get arrested and go to trial in what appears to be a week. It's usually quick, fast-paced, and dramatic, and usually ends in a very clear-cut win or loss. I assure you this is Hollywood magic. In real life, the process is much different. In Madison County, it may take over a year from the time you get arrested to the time of trial. My job is to help you through it.
“Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.”- Thomas Paine
If it's a Felony
After you get arrested, your case will be set before a district court judge for a felony examination. At this time, the judge will ask you whether you intend to hire an attorney or whether you need one appointed to you. Thanks to Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), you are entitled to appointed counsel if you cannot afford one. If you think you qualify, you will be asked to fill out an affidavit in which you provide your income and monthly expenses. Based on the information you provide, the court may appoint you an attorney.
The first case setting after the felony examination is the preliminary hearing. The preliminary hearing is often called a "probable cause" hearing. This is because the only purpose for this hearing is to determine whether or not law enforcement had enough probable cause to justify the arrest. It has nothing to do with guilt or innocence. Rather, it's the mechanism by which the court determines whether there is enough evidence to send this case to Grand Jury. This hearing may be waived, but it is a decision that should be made after speaking with your lawyer.
After the preliminary hearing, your case is bound over to the Grand Jury. However, it could be months before your case is heard. Once it gets before the Grand Jury, the State will present evidence against you to a special jury behind closed doors. This jury might hear from law enforcement officers and other witnesses, but you are NOT entitled to be at that hearing. Based on the evidence presented, the Grand Jury will either no bill your case (meaning, your case ends there and it's dismissed), or it will true bill your case and you will be indicted.
Once you are indicted, your case is now before the circuit court and will get a new case number. Immediately upon indictment, you should meet with your attorney to determine how to proceed. Your case will be set for arraignment or some other pretrial docket (depending on the judge) in which you either enter a guilty plea and hopefully accept some type of negotiated offer for the resolution of your case, or you will plead not guilty and move forward to the trial phase. It is not uncommon for trial to be continued a number of times depending on the number of cases set on the docket for that day and the age of the case, but I will keep you informed every step of the way.
If it's a Misdemeanor
If you were arrested for a misdemeanor, chances are your case is either in the municipal (city) court or in the district court. In either situation, you will have an opportunity to request your own attorney at the initial case setting. If you cannot afford one, the court will either provide a public defender or an appointed attorney to see you through your case.
Often, your first setting is also the trial setting. Most judges will expect you to be prepared to try your case that day whether you have an attorney or not. A trial in municipal or district court is only held before the judge. There are no jury trials at those levels; however, if you lose at this level, you may sometimes appeal the case to circuit court in order to have a jury trial.
Misdemeanors often take far less time to resolve than felonies, but they still require your attention. Even though misdemeanors are handled by bench trials, you still have all the same rights guaranteed to you by the Constitution: the right to confront and cross examine witnesses against you, the right to call witnesses on your own behalf, the right to counsel, and the right not to testify if you so choose. This is a decision only you can make with your attorney.