Your Right to Appeal
The goal of the defendant in any criminal prosecution is to be exonerated of all charges, either through a dismissal of the charges or through a “not guilty” verdict at trial. Failing to achieve that goal, however, does not mean you have to give up the fight. In the United States, a defendant has an absolute right to appeal a guilty verdict. In addition, you may also be entitled to appeal the sentence you received.
Appealing a criminal conviction in California requires you to navigate a complex, and often confusing, legal system that should only be attempted with the assistance of an experienced California criminal appeals attorney. As a defendant though, you should have a basic understanding of the criminal appeals process.
What an Appeal Is – And Is Not
Unless you had had reason to go through the appellate process before you may have several misconceptions about what an appeal is and what can be accomplished through filing an appeal. First and foremost, an appeal is not a new trial. As a general rule, new evidence cannot be admitted on appeal and usually new arguments cannot be made. The purpose of an appeal is to provide an opportunity to correct errors made at the trial level. Errors may have been made by the judge, the prosecutor, or the jury during trial. An appeal asks a higher court to review the trial court record, determine if an error was indeed made and, if so, establish whether that error impacted the outcome of your case. Not all errors are actionable on appeal. “Harmless” errors, or errors that did not have an impact on the outcome of the case, are acceptable and are not reason to reverse a verdict. To succeed on appeal, you must convince the appellate court that an error was made during trial and that error must have affected the outcome of the case.
Post-Conviction Relief vs. Appeal
After a guilty verdict there are two routes you may be eligible to take to seek relief from either the verdict or your sentence. Post-conviction relief, or P.C.R., typically refers to motions filed after trial or after you accepted a guilty plea. Post-conviction relief is not the same as an appeal, however, you may be able to accomplish many of the same objectives with PCR as you would with an appeal. Common PCR motions include:
- Motion to overturn a conviction based on ineffective assistance of counsel
- Motion to withdraw a guilty plea
- Motion for re-sentencing
Issues on Appeal
To succeed on appeal you must allege, and prove, that a reversible error occurred during your trial. Some common appeal issues include:
- Challenges to pre-trial rulings – pre-trial motions are commonly filed by both sides prior to trial. A pre-trial ruling, therefore, could have affected the eventual outcome of your case.
- Jury misconduct – including anything from improper communications between a jury member and a witness to outright bribery.
- Improperly admitted/excluded evidence – if you believe evidence was wrongly admitted or excluded by the judge during the course of your trial it can be used to appeal the verdict.
- Insufficient evidence to sustain the conviction – thought the jury is charged with reaching a verdict, if the verdict is “guilty” there must be sufficient evidence to reach that verdict.
- Improper jury instructions – the judge reads a set of jury instructions to the jury members before they are sent off to deliberate. An improper instruction can be cause for appeal.
- Ineffective assistance of counsel – alleges that your attorney did not perform his or her job properly, resulting in an inadequate defense at trial.
Filing an Appeal in California
The first thing you must know about filing an appeal in California is that the appeals process is time sensitive. There are numerous deadlines involved in filing an appeal. Missing a deadline could cause you to lose your right to appellate review. The appeals process in California typically involves all of the following:
- Notice of Appeal – To begin the appeals process you must file a Notice of Appeal with the Clerk of the trial court within 30-60 days. For a misdemeanor conviction you have 30 days to file your Notice of Appeal whereas you have 60 days for a felony conviction. Except in rare circumstances, late notices will not be accepted. The purpose of the Notice of Appeal is to put both the trial court and the appellate court on notice that an appeal is forthcoming.
- Trial Record – Once the Notice of Appeal is filed, the trial court prepares the trial record, including a transcript and all exhibits, to be sent up to the appellate court. The trial record is a literal, word for word record of everything that was said during the trial. Along with the transcript of the trial, all exhibits introduced at the trial become part of the trial record on appeal. The trial record is sent to the appropriate appellate court, either the Appellate Division of the Superior Court or the California Court of Appeals.
- Briefs – An appeal is decided largely (or entirely) on the written record submitted to the appellate court. Along with the trial record, both sides may file an appellate brief outlining their positions. The defendant’s (appellant’s) brief outlines the issues on appeal and argues in favor of vacating the verdict based on those issues.
- Oral Argument – Sometimes, the appellate court requests oral arguments from the parties. This is an opportunity for the court to question the parties regarding issues on appeal. In addition, it provides another chance for your attorney to convince the court that your verdict should be vacated because of errors made during trial.
- Decision – The appellate court may affirm the guilty verdict or it may reverse the verdict. If the appellate court upholds the trial court verdict, you may appeal that decision to a higher court. When an appellate court reverses a trial court verdict, the case is usually sent back to the trial court for further proceedings.
More About Criminal Convictions in California
For more information about appealing a criminal conviction in the state of California, the following related resources are available for your review:
- Dismissing a Criminal Conviction in California to Clear Your Record
- How Criminal Cases Work (California Courts)
- Criminal Appeals (Justia)
If you were recently convicted at trial of a criminal offense in the state of California, you have a right to appeal the conviction and/or the sentence you received as a result of the conviction. Though the law guarantees you the right to appeal, the law also limits the time within which you must assert your right to appeal a criminal conviction. Contact an experienced California criminal defense attorney immediately to find out what options are available to you.