In my three previous blogs, I discussed the criminal law as it pertained to the use of deadly physical force as a means of self-defense, The Stand Your Ground Doctrine, as well as The Castle Doctrine. I reviewed what the criminal law requires for a person to use deadly physical force in various situations and how the ability to use deadly physical force is further enhanced and protected as per the Alabama Criminal Code, Title 13A, in specific circumstances, such as in your dwelling, your business or your occupied vehicle. But what does all of this mean in terms of the civil law in Alabama? Please note that I have made available a couple of links to previous blogs at the conclusion of this blog to assist you in a more complete and thorough understanding of this topic.
We live in a very litigious society. It seems as though every time someone does (or doesn't do) something, there is a plaintiff and his lawyer ready to file a civil law suit. Believe it or not, there are actual protective and preventative measures and devices in both the criminal code as well as the civil justice code (Title 6) that seek to prevent the filing of frivolous law suits in cases where legally justified self-defense is used. My hope in this blog is to inform the reader about what some of those statutory measures and devices are when it comes to the possible judicial repercussions of using force and / or deadly physical force in Alabama.
In the blog on deadly physical force as a means to self-defense, I discussed the necessity of various factors that served as either aggravating or mitigating circumstances when the decision to use a deadly or dangerous implement (a gun, a knife, a baseball bat, a lead pipe, or even a toaster!) to defend oneself, a third party or even property. The most important of those factors was, "Am I legally justified in using such force or deadly physical force in a given situation?" As was discussed, there are innumerable scenarios that may or may not determine if the use of deadly physical force as a means of self-defense is legally justified. If such a defense theory is to be used by a defendant at trial, it is his burden, not the burden of the state, to prove that the use of deadly physical force was indeed justified. This, I described, as a shift of the burden of proof from the state to the defendant. It is the Finder of Fact (the judge in a bench trial and a jury in a jury trial) to determine if that force was indeed justified. The defendant who asserts (or plans to assert) the legal defense of self-defense, must prove such a legal defense in a specific type of hearing before a judge. The Alabama Criminal Code calls this a Determination Hearing. The code section outlining the procedure for this hearing is found in Alabama Criminal Code 13A-3-23(d)(2).
Which court will actually hear this Determination Hearing? If the charge brought against a defendant is a misdemeanor charge (Assault 3rd Degree, Menacing, Harassment, Criminal Coercion, etc.) the the district court and the district court judge will hear hold the hearing to determine if defendant's claim of self-defense is a viable defense. The district court hold the proper jurisdiction to hear and to try misdemeanor cases within the district. If the judge determines that the defendant was legally justified in using such force as a means to defending himself, a third party or property, then the case is due to be dismissed immediately and all charges are to be dropped. If the use of such for is determined to be unjustified or unwarranted under the the law (13A-3-23), then the defendant will face charges and now finds himself in jeopardy. Remember, in a county's district court, there is no jury....only a judge. Therefore, the district court judge serves as both the Finder of Law (interprets what the law means) AND the Finder of Fact (what the truth is).
If the defendant is charged with a felony after employing such force in a self-defense situation, (Capital Murder, Murder, Assault 1st or 2nd Degree, etc.), then the Determination Hearing will be heard in the circuit court with the circuit court judge officiating the hearing. The circuit court is the court that holds the jurisdiction to try misdemeanor cases upon appeal and original jurisdiction for felony cases charged within the district or circuit. Once again, if the defendant is found to have been legally justified under the guidelines in 13A-3-23, then all charges will be dropped against the defendant and the case is due to be dismissed. But if the defendant was not legally justified or warranted in using such force as a means to self-defense, then the defendant's case continues to move thru the court system. In the circuit court when the DEFENDANT decides he doesn't want a JURY TRIAL, the circuit court judge acts as both the Finder of Law AND the Finder of Fact. If the DEFENDANT requests a jury trial, then the circuit court judge is the Finder of Law and the jury is the Finder of Fact
If a municipal court misdemeanor charge arises from a circumstance involving self-defense, the lawyer and the city prosecutor will discuss the use of force and the self-defense theory and try to resolve the issue via good faith negotiations. A vast majority of times, an amicable resolution between the city prosecutor and the criminal defense attorney is reached. If not, a trial (or a plea) will move forward. If the municipal court defendant is found guilty, he or she has 14 days to appeal the municipal court decision to the appropriate circuit court de novo. That means the case begins over from the beginning as if the municipal case had never been tried at all!
In Alabama, according to 13A-3-23(d)(1), if a person uses force (including deadly physical force) upon another person, and that force is determined to have been legally justified, then the defendant "is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force, unless the force was determined to be unlawful."