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The claim of an alibi is one of the most common defenses in the history of criminal justice. After all, it is generally impossible to commit a criminal act if you were somewhere else at the time the offense occurred. In many cases, establishing an alibi could put you on the path to an acquittal for the federal offenses you are facing.

However, if your plan is to show up on the day of your trial and allege that you were elsewhere at the time the crime occurred, you might be out of luck. Federal court is complex, and there are intricate notice requirements that can cost you the strongest defense available if you fail to comply with them.

Understanding the use of and notice requirements for an alibi defense is important. However, your choice of legal counsel will have the largest impact on determining your chance of avoiding a conviction. If you are facing federal charges in the Houston area, speak with Attorney Doug Murphy as soon as possible.

What Is an Alibi?

Under federal law, an alibi defense includes information that the "defendant was not present at the time when, or at the place where, the defendant is alleged to have committed the offense charged in the indictment." This is not an affirmative defense, meaning the defendant does not have the burden of proving their alibi exists. If the court finds the alibi defense has created reasonable doubt regarding the defendant's guilt, they must vote for acquittal.

Notice Requirements

While the defendant may not have the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that they had an alibi at the time the crime occurred, they must present their alibi as a defense for the jury to consider it. To use this defense, the defendant must provide the prosecution with formal notice of their intent to do so.

The notice requirements for the alibi defense are governed by Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 12.1. According to the rule, the defendant must provide notice of their intent to use an alibi defense at the prosecution's request. The government must make this request in writing and provide the time, date, and place the alleged offense occurred.

Once the government makes this request, the defendant has 14 days to respond. However, the trial court is empowered to set a response time other than 14 days at their discretion. The response must provide two important sets of information:

  • Each specific place where the defendant claims to have been at the time of the alleged offense; and
  • The name, address, and telephone number of each alibi witness on whom the defendant intends to rely.

Should the defendant fail to comply with this notice requirement, the court has the power to prevent them from making use of the alibi defense. Many courts give defendants leeway in compliance with these requirements, but putting a potential defense at risk is dangerous in any situation.

Trial Considerations

When the court allows the defendant to make use of an alibi defense, the defense may request the court to instruct the jury to entertain reasonable doubt if they believe the defendant's claim they were elsewhere at the time of the offense. That said, some courts will refuse to make specific written instructions to the jury regarding the use of the alibi defense. Appellate courts have upheld this refusal, finding the general instructions asking the jury to weigh the evidence and assess the credibility of the witnesses to be sufficient to protect the defendant's rights.

At trial, an important aspect of the alibi defense is the use of alibi witnesses. It is one thing to claim that you were elsewhere at the time the crime occurred. It is another to have other, potentially disinterested parties vouch for your whereabouts at the time. The court may not bar an alibi witness from testifying based on concerns of time management, even if they find the witness to be unreliable.

There are also rules regarding how the prosecution may comment on a prospective alibi defense during the trial. At no point may the prosecution comment on a defendant's decision to not offer an alibi defense immediately after their arrest. To do so would put undue pressure on the defendant to speak with police against their will. The prosecution is allowed to cross-examine the defendant on any inconsistent elements of their defense, however.

Examples of Alibis and Federal Crimes Defense in Houston, TX

Consider the following examples of an alibi defense:

Example #1

Ted is accused of selling illegally modified firearms outside of a school in the town he lives in on New Year's Eve. After his arrest, his attorney informs the prosecution that they intend to use an alibi defense. According to Ted, he was in another state on vacation on New Year's Eve. At trial, his wife testifies that they were indeed out of state at the time. Ted's attorney also provides credit card receipts to establish that he was nowhere near the scene of the crime.

Example #2

Tina was arrested for her alleged role in a federal hate crime. Despite being charged with a violent offense along with several other people, the United States Attorney had little evidence tying Tina to the event. Tina's attorney notified the prosecution that she would be relying on an alibi defense. According to Tina, she was in a dance club at the time the attack occurred. Tina provides the names of witnesses who saw her in the club as well as security footage showing she was there all night.

Contact a Houston Federal Crimes Defense Attorney

An alibi defense is powerful due to its simplicity. After all, any juror can understand the concept that the defendant was somewhere else at the time the crime occurred.

Despite the strength of this defense in many cases, the failure to carefully abide by the notice requirements under federal law could put your case at risk. If you are facing federal charges in the Houston area, discuss your defense options with Board Certified criminal defense attorney Doug Murphy at the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. right away. Contact us at 713-229-8333.

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