After arrest, authorities in Alabama must either release suspects or take them in front of judge within 72 hours. The first time in court after an arrest is called an initial appearance—it’s where defendants get information about the criminal process, including how they can get out of jail. Arraignment is a distinct hearing that signals the commencement of criminal proceedings.
For more information on arraignment and initial court appearances in general, see Arraignment: Getting to Court.
What Happens at the Initial Appearance
For someone in jail, an initial appearance is the first opportunity to see a judge. At that appearance, the judge will inform the defendant of the charges and certain rights, like the right to counsel and the right to remain silent. The judge may also:
- ascertain the defendant’s correct name and address
- set a date for the preliminary hearing (for felony charges)
- appoint an attorney if the defendant can’t afford one, and
- set the conditions of release. (Ala. Rules Crim. Proc., Rule 4.4.)
With or Without a Warrant
In most cases, the police don’t have a warrant when they arrest someone. In this situation, officers can hold someone in Alabama for only 48 hours before getting a judge to make a probable cause determination, which doesn’t require the suspect to be present. (Ala. Rules Crim. Proc., Rule 4.3(a)(1)(iii).) If the hearing is held without the suspect, then the authorities still have to bring him or her in front of a judge within the 72 hour window.
If the judge finds that there isn’t probable cause to believe that the suspect committed the crime in question, then the case doesn’t proceed and the authorities must release the arrestee. But that rarely happens—in most cases, the judge finds probable cause for the arrest and the case proceeds on.
If the defendant was arrested with a warrant, then there is no need for a probable cause determination—that’s because a judge already made the requisite determination when issuing the warrant. In these situations, too, the government has 72 hours to present the defendant for an initial appearance. (Ala. Rules Crim. Proc., Rule 4.3(b).) If the authorities don't get the defendant to court within 72 hours or don't get a probable cause determination within 48 hours, then the defendant must be released on minimum bail as determined by the bail schedule. (Ala. Rules Crim. Proc., Rule 4.3.)
Alabama law requires that all defendants be arraigned in open court—otherwise reversal of a conviction can occur. (Ala. Rules Crim. Proc., Rule 14.1.) Typically, a defendant will hear the charges and then enter a plea. A defendant must enter one of the following pleas:
- guilty (but it’s rarely a good idea to plead guilty at this stage without an attorney due to lack of information and sentencing guarantee)
- not guilty
- not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, or
- not guilty and not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.
For defendants who didn’t have an initial appearance because they were already out of custody, the court can also appoint counsel or set a preliminary hearing date at arraignment.
Consult a Lawyer
If you’ve been arrested, whether or not you’ve been to court yet, seek the help of a knowledgeable attorney. Only a such a lawyer can properly advise you of the applicable law and enforce your rights.