A solid grasp of how appeals work is crucial if you ever find yourself on the losing end of a case and need to contest the outcome. Understanding your options for appeal can be the difference between accepting a raw deal or fighting for justice.
That’s why we’ve put together this comprehensive guide breaking down everything you need to know about the criminal appeals process. We’ll walk through what an appeal is, the different types of appeals courts, the basic procedures, and what you need to consider if you want to file an appeal.
What is a Criminal Appeal?
A criminal appeal is when someone convicted of a crime asks a higher court to review the judgment and proceedings of the trial court to determine if any legal errors occurred.
In an appeal, the higher court, the appellate or appeals court, does not retry the case or take new evidence. Rather, it reviews the trial court record, including the transcripts and evidence from the original court proceedings, to assess if the trial judge properly applied the law and ensured a fair trial.
If the appeals court finds the trial court made prejudicial legal errors, it may overturn the conviction or order a new trial. However, if it finds no errors or only minor errors that did not affect the outcome, the appeals court will affirm the conviction.
Grounds for a Criminal Appeal in California
There are several common grounds for appealing a criminal conviction in California:
- Unlawful Search & Seizure: Evidence was obtained in violation of the defendant’s 4th Amendment rights.
- Miranda Rights Violation: Incriminating statements were obtained without Miranda warnings.
- Insufficient Evidence: The prosecution failed to present enough evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Ineffective Assistance of Counsel: The defense attorney’s performance fell below professional standards.
- Prosecutorial Misconduct: The prosecutor behaved improperly, denying the defendant’s right to due process.
- Judicial Bias: The judge was unfairly biased against the defendant.
- Incorrect Jury Instructions: The jury was given improper instructions on how to apply the law.
- Excessive Sentence: The sentence far exceeds what is typical for similar offenses.
- Sentencing Error: The trial court made a mistake in calculating sentencing terms.
- New Evidence: Significant new evidence has been discovered that could change the trial’s outcome.
Winning a criminal appeal requires identifying substantive errors in legal processes, not just procedural mistakes. While grounds like illegal searches and insufficient evidence are common, an criminal justice attorney also analyzes how prejudice, sentencing errors, and newly discovered evidence could support reversing your conviction or reducing your sentence.
Key Steps in the California Criminal Appeal Process
Here are the typical steps involved when filing a criminal appeal in California:
- File a Notice of Appeal: After being convicted and sentenced, the defendant has 30 days to file a notice of appeal with the trial court. This formally informs the court and prosecution of the intent to appeal.
- Court Reporter & Clerk Prepare Record: The court reporter transcribes the trial transcripts while the clerk assembles other documents and exhibits from the trial to create the full record for appeal.
- File Appellant’s Opening Brief: The appellant (defendant) files a written legal brief explaining why the conviction or sentence should be overturned due to errors made by the trial court.
- Respondent Files Opposition Brief: The respondent (prosecution) files a brief arguing the conviction and sentence should be upheld.
- Appellant Files Reply Brief (Optional): The appellant can file a reply brief to counter the respondent’s arguments.
- Oral Arguments (Optional): Each side presents oral arguments summarizing their positions before a panel of appeals court judges.
- Appeals Court Issues Opinion: The appeals judges confer and issue a written ruling affirming, reversing, or modifying the conviction or sentence.
- Rehearing (Optional): Either party can request a rehearing if they believe the appeals court misapplied the law or facts.
- Supreme Court Review (Optional): If rehearing is denied, the appellant can petition the state Supreme Court to review the appeals court’s decision.
- Appeals Process Concludes: If Supreme Court review is denied, the appeals process ends, and the appeals court judgment stands.
What’s the Appellate Court’s Role?
California has both state and federal appellate courts that hear criminal appeals:
- California Courts of Appeal – Intermediate appellate courts that hear appeals from Superior Court decisions. There are six appellate districts in California.
- California Supreme Court – Highest state court that has discretionary review over Court of Appeal decisions. Reviews cases presenting important legal issues.
- S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit – Federal intermediate appellate court handling appeals from California federal district courts.
- S. Supreme Court – The highest federal court that has discretionary review power over federal appeals court rulings. Reviews cases involving federal law.
In most cases, criminal appeals start in the California Court of Appeal, then may be appealed up to the state Supreme Court, and finally to the federal system.
What’s the Timeline for Filing an Appeal?
It is crucial to meet all deadlines when filing a criminal appeal:
- Notice of Appeal – Must be filed within 30 days of the judgment or order being appealed. This deadline is strict.
- Appellant’s Opening Brief – Typically due within 40 days after the full appeals record is prepared. Deadlines can often be extended.
- Respondent’s Brief – Filed within 30 days after the appellant’s opening brief is filed. Extensions are common.
- Appellant’s Reply Brief – Optional brief filed within 20 days of the respondent’s brief.
- Rehearing Petition – Must be filed within 15 days of the appeals court decision.
- Supreme Court Petition – Filed within 10 days after the appeals court decision is final if rehearing is denied.
Missing a filing deadline can result in the appeal being dismissed, so working with an appellate lawyer is highly recommended.
What Happens If Your Appeal Is Successful?
If you win your criminal appeal, several potential outcomes are depending on the nature of the legal errors:
- New Trial – Appeals courts often order a new trial if errors substantially impact the outcome or fairness of the original trial. This gives the defendant a clean slate with a new jury.
- Remand for Resentencing – Appeals courts will sometimes remand for resentencing without overturning the conviction if sentencing errors occur.
- Conviction Reversed – A rare outcome where the appeals court reverses the conviction completely with no retrial if the evidence presented was insufficient to convict.
- Charges Dismissed – Appeals courts may dismiss charges entirely rather than order a new trial if prosecutorial misconduct denies the defendant’s right to due process.
- Plea Deal Negotiations Reopen – The prosecution may negotiate a plea deal on reduced charges to avoid a retrial if the conviction is overturned.
Even if your entire conviction is not overturned, winning an appeal can potentially lead to much lower sentences, dropped charges, plea bargains, or the opportunity to fully retrial your case.
Work with a Trusted Criminal Appeals Lawyer
The appeals process is complex, with strict deadlines that must be met to avoid waiving your appellate rights. Having an experienced criminal defense lawyer from a respected firm like Kolacia Law handling your appeal greatly improves the odds of success and reduces charges and sentences. Don’t leave your criminal appeal to chance – speak to a lawyer today to discuss your options.