District Courts in Alabama are trial courts of “limited jurisdiction” meaning they hear misdemeanors & small claims cases and have concurrent jurisdiction with Circuit Court on juvenile cases.
Misdemeanor Cases are crimes where the possible punishment is one year in prison or less. Examples of misdemeanors are Theft of Property in the 3rd Degree (where the value of the property stolen is less than $500), Harassment, Assault in the 3rd Degree and Negotiation of Worthless Checks. The Tuscaloosa County District Attorney’s Office prosecutes misdemeanor cases investigated by the Tuscaloosa Co. Sheriff’s Office and the Alabama State Troopers. Misdemeanors handled by other municipal agencies such as the Tuscaloosa and Northport Police Departments are typically prosecuted in that agency’s Municipal Court.
Preliminary Hearings are held in District Court. These hearings are held in felony cases at the request of the defendant to determine if there is “probable cause” for the case to proceed. These hearings are only held if the case has not yet been presented to the Tuscaloosa County Grand Jury.
Circuit Courts in Alabama are the trial courts of “general jurisdiction” meaning that these courts have the power to decide all cases that can be brought into court under the Constitution and laws of the State of Alabama. The Circuit Courts have exclusive original jurisdiction over felony criminal cases and capital murder cases. Circuit Courts also maintain the authority to hear cases appealed from any court of limited jurisdiction (i.e. Municipal Courts, Probate Courts, and District Courts). A case appealed from another court will be tried de novo in Circuit Court, meaning the case will be tried again, usually with a jury. Circuit Courts are “courts of record.” All proceedings are recorded and transcribed by an official court reporter.
Felony cases are those offenses where the possible punishment involves more than a year in prison. The District Attorney’s Office prosecutes all felonies in Circuit Court. Most of such cases are tried before a jury. Such crimes include Murder, Robbery, Sexual Assault, Theft, drug offenses, and Child Abuse.
A “Dependant Child” is one who:
–Is in immediate danger in his or her current surroundings
–Does not have anyone to take care of him or her
–Is homeless, destitute, or dependant on the public for support
–Is without a parent or guardian for support
–Is neglected by his/her parents or guardian
A “Delinquent Child” is one who has committed a crime (i.e. violation, misdemeanor or felony).
A “Child in Need of Supervision” (CHINS) is one who:
–Is habitually truant (excessive school absences or tardies)
–Runs away from home
–Continuously disobeys parents or guardians
–Violates curfew as set by a governmental agency
The Grand Jury is a panel of eighteen randomly selected Tuscaloosa County citizens who are summoned to report for jury duty. In Tuscaloosa County, there are four terms of Grand Jury each year. Each panel serves two one-week sessions over a three month term but is subject to be called back at any time during the term.
The Grand Jury hears criminal charges brought by law enforcement agencies such as the Tuscaloosa and Northport Police Departments, The Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, The Alabama State Troopers, The Alabama Bureau of Investigation, and police departments from municipalities from across Tuscaloosa County. The panel does not decide guilt or innocence. The Grand Jury hears a small portion of the case to determine if there is probable cause for an indictment or formal legal charge.
At the end of each term of service, the Grand Jury issues indictments, or “true bills,” on all cases for which they have found that probable cause exists. For those cases where the Grand Jury does not find probable cause, the panel issues “no bills.”
The work of the Grand Jury is conducted behind closed doors and all proceedings are kept secret to protect the innocent who may be accused, to encourage witnesses to speak freely & truthfully without fear, and to prevent those persons who have committed criminal acts from fleeing from the due administration of justice. Only prosecutors presenting the cases and their witnesses are allowed in the Grand Jury room. Discussing anything about Grand Jury proceedings before that information is filed with the Circuit Clerk’s office is a criminal offense.
RECENT TUSCALOOSA COUNTY GRAND JURY STATISTICS
Year True Bills (Indictments) No Bills # of Witness Appearances
2009 3,648 289 5,322
2010 3,443 282 4,676
2011 2,879 333 4,639