What is an Alibi and How Does it Work?


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You may have heard of someone using an alibi to avoid criminal liability, either in real life or on a television show or movie. But what is an alibi? How does it work? What are the legal consequences fo claiming an alibi?

In simplest terms, an alibi is merely evidence that demonstrates a defendant in a criminal case was somewhere other than the scene of a crime at the time that the crime occurred. For example, John is charged with killing Steve. John offers evidence that he was in class that day at the time of the murder. That evidence could be in the form of witnesses who were in class with John, an attendance sheet showing him in class, or a recording of the class from that day showing him in the audience, among other things. That evidence demonstrates an alibi.

Defendants may offer an alibi defense without giving up their constitutional right against self-incrimination (i.e., the right to remain silent). The defendant may rely on any witness or evidence that demonstrates he or she was at a different location that would otherwise be admissible without having to testify personally. But, if one has an alibi, why would they choose not to testify personally? In some instances there may be other crimes that the defendant may also have been charged with that he or she may be questioned about while on the stand. Similarly, even if the crime to which the alibi applies is the only one charged, the prosecutor could begin to attack the defendant's credibility, possibly even bringing up prior convictions, which could be enough to cause a jury to disbelieve the alibi unless it is iron clad.

For example, if we use the case of John and Steve, described above, if John's alibi that he was in class was only supported by a few students who think they remember him there but are not entirely sure, if John takes the stand. to bolster his own defense, the prosecutor may bring up the fact that John was once convicted of participating in an armed robbery using the same kind of weapon that was used to kill Steve.

Fortunately, defendants who offer alibi defenses do not assume a responsibility for proving the validity of the alibi. The burden of proving a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt remains always remains with the prosecution. Of course, a judge or jury can weigh the credibility of alibi evidence just like any other evidence when determining whether the prosecution has met that burden. Simply suggesting an alibi will not automatically erase a mountain of other evidence that conclusively proves the alibi is false.

However, most states require that a defendant in a criminal case disclose an intention to rely on alibi evidence at trial. This normally comes up during the process of exchanging information about the facts of a case called “discovery.” This gives prosecutors an opportunity to investigate the validity of the alibi and either prepare to undermine its credibility or, if proved true, to drop the charges against the defendant.

For example, after disclosing that he intends to rely on evidence of his attendance in class as an alibi, the prosecutor decides to investigate further and finds a video showing John's car pulling into the parking garage where Steve's body was found. A follow up shows that John's debit card was used to pay parking fees as the car left the garage, as well. As a result, even though John intends to raise an alibi of being in class and has a couple of classmates who think they remember him being there that night, the prosecution will put on this evidence showing John's car at the scene and the use of his debit card to refute that alibi evidence.

If you, or someone you know, has been charged with a crime, whether an alibi exists or not, you should contact an attorney at your earliest opportunity. An attorney can help you investigate your case and devise appropriate defenses, like alibis, to help you get the best possible plea arrangement or develop the strongest defense possible. Please click on the “Law Firms” tab on the menu bar, above, to find a list of attorneys in your area, including criminal defense attorneys.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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