There seems to be a significant amount of confusion from clients when it comes to understanding the difference between the three different types of criminal trial courts in Alabama. Believe it or not, there are many important differences between municipal, district and circuit criminal courts. Each court has certain things that are unique and specific. Certain courts have more "power or authority" than other criminal courts. This blog is intended to ONLY outline the differences between the various CRIMINAL COURTS in Alabama, NOT civil courts in the state. Additionally, this blog will not go into an explanation of preliminary hearings or grand jury indictments. I will dedicate a separate blog to that subject!
MUNICIPAL CRIMINAL COURT
Municipal courts are the criminal courts in Alabama that try municipal ordinance violations, traffic violations, and misdemeanor criminal charges that occur within the jurisdictional boundaries of the city and that are made by municipal police officers of that city.
So what happens in municipal court? First of all, there are NO JURY TRIALS permitted in municipal courts. All trials are in front of a judge only. This is called a bench trial. There is NO COURT REPORTER, or court stenographer. A municipal court CANNOT try any felonies in Alabama. The city has a city prosecutor who is responsible for prosecuting the case. If you are convicted, you will serve your jail time in the city jail. Appeals of convictions are heard in the circuit court.
DISTRICT CRIMINAL COURT
District courts are state courts of limited jurisdiction in Alabama. There is a district court in all sixty-seven Alabama counties. Some counties, such as Jefferson, St. Clair, and Talladega have two separate district court locations, so there is a total of seventy district courts in Alabama. A district court will have jurisdiction over traffic offenses (tickets) that are written by county deputies from that county's sheriff's department and Alabama State Troopers within that county. These traffic offenses must have occurred within the county. Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (game wardens) cases are tried in district courts. A district court can also try any misdemeanor criminal offense that occurs within its district (lets use as an example, Domestic Violence 3rd Degree, Theft of Property 4th Degree, Carrying a Concealed Pistol Without a Permit, and Criminal Mischief 3rd Degree).
A district court CANNOT have a trial for a felony charge. A district court CAN, however, take a guilty plea for a felony crime and pass sentence. The district court is the first court in which a felony charge is addressed. It is in the district court that lawyers can do a tremendous amount of beneficial plea bargaining on behalf of their client. It is in district court that a large number of criminal charges can be dismissed outright or reduced or changed all together. Other than plea negotiations, the two most important events that occur in district court concerning a felony charge is either entering a guilty plea or putting on a preliminary hearing. I will get into the specifics of preliminary hearings and grand jury indictments in a separate blog. There are NO JURY TRIALS in the district courts of Alabama. Bench trials only (on misdemeanors and traffic offenses). There is NO COURT REPORTER in district courts, unless the defendant is pleading guilty to a felony offense (then a court reporter will be utilized to memorialize the felony plea on the record). If the sheriff of the county you reside in denies or revokes your concealed carry permit in Alabama, a bench trial is held in the district court. Appeals from a conviction for a misdemeanor criminal offense are heard in the circuit court where the district is situated.
CIRCUIT CRIMINAL COURT
In Alabama, there are forty-one circuit criminal courts that are comprised of the seventy various district courts. The circuit criminal court can try ANY state felony (lets say as an example Trafficking Methamphetamine, Rape, Murder, Burglary, Unlawful Breaking and Entering a Vehicle, Robbery). The circuit court hears all criminal court appeals from all municipal and district courts in Alabama. The circuit court is the only trial court in Alabama where a jury can be utilized if the criminal defendant so elects. If the defendant refuses to have a jury trial, he will have a bench trial. There is a court reporter used for ALL hearings in the circuit court. When you think of circuit court in Alabama, this is the court that most closely resembles what you see on television or in movies. Appeals from the circuit court are made to the Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama located in Montgomery, Alabama.
As you can see, there are several factors that determine what court your criminal charge will be decided. Regardless of what criminal court you may find yourself or a loved one assigned, I cannot stress enough the importance of having capable and competent legal representation. Don't think that a municipal court case is not a serious situation simply because it is held in a small municipal court. A conviction in any municipal court in Alabama depending upon the charge can carry very serious consequences that may impact you for the remainder of your life. These cases are NOT to be taken lightly. They require the same care, attention to detail and preparation that a circuit court case would require.