How to Appeal a Federal Criminal Conviction
If you are convicted of a federal crime, that is not necessarily the end of the story. If you disagree with the verdict, you can appeal your case to the higher courts.
A criminal defense attorney may recommend filing an appeal if errors occurred during your trial that potentially affected the outcome of your case. If you are successful with your appeal, you may be able to get a new trial or have your conviction or sentence overturned.
The federal appellate process can be confusing and overwhelming for those who need help understanding how it works, so having an attorney with experience in federal appeals is essential. Simply put, a federal appeal is a legal process where a higher court reviews a criminal conviction and sentence.
Notably, there is no constitutional right to appeal in federal criminal cases. Still, all states and the federal government have a system of appeals courts to review judgments from lower courts. The primary role of the appeals courts is to ensure that the trial courts correctly apply the law.
The federal system has two tiers of appeals courts. The first is the United States Courts of Appeals, which reviews judgments from district courts in their circuits. The other is the United States Supreme Court, which reviews judgments from the federal courts of appeals and the highest appeals courts of the states.
The Supreme Court is notorious for only handling a few cases yearly. This means the court of appeals is the primary source for correcting errors in a federal defendant's trial or sentencing.
To help you make informed decisions about your criminal case, we will briefly review the basics of the federal appeals process below. It's often a complex process, and every case is unique, so you should contact our law firm for a consultation.
What is a Federal Criminal Appeal?
The federal criminal appeals process is a legal procedure that allows a person convicted in a federal district court to challenge their conviction or sentence. This process typically takes between 9 and 12 months but can extend to several years, depending on the case's complexity and the appellate court backlog.
It is important to note that an appeal is not a retrial of your case. Instead, it evaluates the lower court's decision based on the evidence and legal arguments presented during the initial trial.
What is the Hierarchy of the Federal Court System?
To understand what is happening when you appeal your case, you must first comprehend how the federal court system is structured.
At the base of the federal court system are 94 district courts. These are general trial courts where cases are first heard and decided. District courts have jurisdiction over federal civil and criminal cases, including patent disputes, bankruptcy cases, and federal crimes.
Every state has at least one district court, with larger states divided into multiple districts to handle the case volume effectively. When you're charged with a federal crime, your case will be tried in the district court that has jurisdiction over your case.
Courts of Appeals
A level above the district courts, the U.S. is divided into 13 circuits, each served by a U.S. Court of Appeals. These appellate courts review the decisions of the district courts within their respective circuits, along with certain administrative agencies' rulings.
They examine whether the law was applied correctly in the original proceedings but do not conduct new trials or hear new evidence. You will do so when you appeal your conviction or sentence in the Court of Appeals that presides over your district.
At the apex of the federal court system is the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court primarily hears appeals from the U.S. Courts of Appeals and state supreme courts. If the appellate court does not rule in your favor, the Supreme Court will typically only consider hearing your case if it involves a question of Constitutional Law.
The Criminal Appeals Process: A Step-by-Step Guide
If you and your defense attorney disagree with the verdict in your federal trial and believe justice was not properly served, you have the right to file an appeal with your respective Court of Appeals. If you decide to appeal your conviction or sentence, your case will proceed through the following steps.
Filing of a Notice of Appeal
This one-page document, filed with the district court, shows that you intend to appeal. It must be filed within 14 days of the judgment or order being challenged. Note that this is not the actual appeal—it simply lets the courts know you intend to appeal.
Within 14 days of the Notice of Appeal, your attorney will then file a statement indicating that they represent you in the appeal and request a copy of the trial record to be sent to the Court of Appeals.
The record includes all documents and transcripts related to the trial court proceedings. It's crucial as it forms the appellate court's review basis. As the party that appeals to the case, you are responsible for ordering and paying for the transcription of any court reporter's notes from the trial.
The brief is the most critical part of the appeal. This written document outlines the arguments for why the district court decision should be reversed. It contains a case statement, a summary of the facts, the legal arguments, and the relief sought.
The appellant's brief is usually due 40 days after the record is filed. These arguments must be presented clearly and entirely because federal appeals judges will only consider arguments in the briefs.
Many appeals are decided based on the briefs alone, but the Court of Appeals may opt to schedule oral arguments to gain clarity on the appeal. During this session, lawyers from both sides present their arguments, and the judges can ask questions.
In some cases, the judges will allow attorneys to present oral arguments. Even if the panel may set a case for oral argument, it does not guarantee the case will be decided in your favor. Federal courts typically do not reverse criminal convictions without oral argument.
Deciding the Appeal
The panel will read the briefs, review the record, and decide on the case. At the end of this process, the court of appeals will issue a written decision with a detailed opinion explaining the outcome.
When the appellate court issues its written opinion, it will affirm, reverse, or remand the case to the district court for further proceedings. The time frame for this decision varies. Sometimes, the appeals court might issue a shorter, “per curiam” opinion that affirms or reverses a case without a discussion.
If you are dissatisfied with the appellate court's decision, you can file a petition for a rehearing within 14 days. However, rehearing is rarely granted and typically reserved for cases where the court needs to examine a critical point of fact or law.
Supreme Court Appeals
In most cases, the decision of the Court of Appeals is the final authority. However, if a constitutional violation has occurred, your attorney may advise you to file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court. This court will decide to hear cases at its discretion. If it chooses to consider your case, the steps in the process will be like those of your initial appeal.
What Are the Possible Outcomes of an Appeal?
Federal defendants will not appear before the appellate judges. At the end of their review, the judges make one of the following decisions:
- Uphold the lower court's ruling.
- Overturn the ruling or
- Remand the case back to the lower court to correct errors that might not affect the outcome. The higher court will decide whether to overturn or uphold the lower court's ruling.
Suppose your federal conviction is overturned. In that case, you might be granted a new trial, or in some cases, your charges could be dismissed. If the Court of Appeals upholds the lower court's verdict, your conviction remains in effect, and any sentences imposed stay in force.
What Issues Can Be Argued on a Federal Appeal?
An appeal is not the same as a new trial or deciding whether a defendant is innocent or guilty. Instead, the appeals court will only examine whether the trial court correctly applied the law.
Thus, deciding what arguments to raise on appeal is often complicated, but there are some essential considerations in choosing the correct issues to argue on appeal, such as the following:
- Standard review means to examine how a court of appeals might handle a trial court's decision, such as clear error, de novo, or abuse of discretion.
- Error preservation refers to whether a defendant correctly objected to the error in the trial court and preserved their right to appeal.
- To win on appeal, a defendant must demonstrate that the trial court's error most likely impacted the trial outcome.
Judges will consider the facts and arguments in the briefing documents filed at each step throughout the appeal. If oral arguments are held, appellate judges will often ask questions to ensure they fully understand all aspects of the dispute.
Ultimately, the appellate panel must decide which legal precedent applies to the case and how it should be applied. Typically, this means analyzing statutory text, prior decisions, and other legal authorities to make a decision that ensures justice is served.
Filing a federal appeal is a complicated and time-consuming process. You should never attempt to handle a federal appeal without retaining an experienced federal criminal defense attorney specializing in the specific rules and regulations governing federal cases. Contact our law firm for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.
- Appeals Court Upholds Loaded Weapon Conviction
- Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure
- Rule 4. Appeal as of Right - When Taken
- Rule 9. Release in a Criminal Case
- Rule 10. The Record on Appeal
- Rule 28. Briefs
- Rule 31. Serving and Filing Briefs
- Rule 34. Oral Argument
- 18 U.S.C. 3006A - Adequate Representation