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  • Writer's pictureLauryn Lauderdale

Your Journey Through the Criminal Justice System

Although every case is unique and the process does not always follow a precise order or timeline, your journey through the criminal justice system in Alabama will include the following:

Arrest and Booking

Upon your arrest, you will be taken to the police department and “booked.” Booking is the process of identifying you and recording your arrest. You will be photographed, fingerprinted and asked basic questions such as date of birth, address and employment.

In addition, law enforcement officers may undertake further investigation. Depending on the nature of the alleged crime, they may do one of the following:

Place you in a line-up;

Take handwriting or voice samples;

Collect your hair, saliva or blood for testing (only with your consent, a court order or a warrant);

Ask you to submit to a breathalyzer;

Swab your cheek for a DNA sample;

Seek permission to search your property;

Interrogate you.

Initial Appearance

If you do not make bond within 72 hours of your arrest, you will be taken to court for your first appearance before a judge. In Alabama, the initial appearance is sometimes called a “48/72 Hour Hearing.” The judge will review the charges against you and provide the following:

Notice and explanation of the charges against you;

A copy of the arrest warrant;

Notice of your legal rights, including the right to remain silent and the right to counsel;

Appointment of counsel if you qualify financially;

A determination of bail;

Setting of a preliminary hearing.

Preliminary Hearing

A preliminary hearing may be requested within 30 days of your arrest. At the preliminary hearing, the judge will determine whether there is probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that you committed that crime. The prosecution only has to show that there is probable cause that you committed a crime, and does not have to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at this stage. Probable cause is a very low standard, just more evidence in favor that you committed the crime that opposed. It is the same standard required to obtain an arrest warrant. If the judge finds no probable cause, the case will be dismissed and you will be released. If the judge does find probable cause, your case will be bound over for further action by a grand jury. Please note that because the probable cause standard is so low, the judge will find probable cause in most cases.

Grand Jury

The next stop on your journey through the criminal justice system is presentation of your case to a grand jury. The District Attorney’s Office presents cases to a grand jury which is made up of 18 people selected at random. Neither you nor your attorney will be present at the grand jury proceedings. Grand juries are conducted confidentially. If a grand jury does not find probable cause, the case will be dismissed. If a grand jury finds probable cause, they will issue an indictment.


If a grand jury issues an indictment, the next step is arraignment. The arraignment is a formal procedure in which the judge determines whether you understand the criminal charges for which you have been indicted and whether you have an attorney. In almost every case, you will a plea of not guilty. Your attorney may ask you to sign a document called “Plea of Not Guilty and Waiver of Arraignment." In Alabama, if you are under the age of 21 at the time of arrest, you can apply for youthful offender status.

Pretrial Proceedings

Following the arraignment, prosecution or defense attorney will engage in a process called discovery. The prosecution will make initial voluntary disclosure of his evidence against you as well as exculpatory evidence (evidence that is favorable to you on the issues of guilt or punishment). Your defense lawyer will identify legal issues can be addressed through motions (formal written request to the court). For example, if the evidence again you was obtained in violation of your constitutional rights by means of an unlawful search and seizure, your defense lawyer may be able to have that evidence suppressed or tossed out. During the discovery process, the court will set multiple status hearings or trial docket calls to monitor the progress of the case.


Trial will begin with jury selection. Following jury selection, the attorneys will give opening statements. The prosecution will then present evidence against you through testimony of witnesses and your defense lawyer will challenge the witnesses’ veracity and credibility through cross-examination. At the close of the prosecution’s case, it will be your attorney’s turn to present your defense. The evidence phase of the trial will conclude with closing arguments by the attorneys. The case will then go to the jury for deliberation and verdict.


If the jury finds you not guilty, then the case is over and you are released from the criminal justice system. If, however, you are found guilty, a separate hearing will be scheduled at which time you will be sentenced. In Alabama, the court will ask the probation office to prepare a presentencing report.

Post sentencing

After you have been sentenced, your defense attorney may file post judgment motions such as a motion for new trial. In addition, you may appeal the jury’s verdict against you within 42 days.

If you or a loved one is involved in the criminal justice system, please contact us. We would love to assist you.

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