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29 Nov 23

The Key Differences Between Civil and Criminal Federal Appeals

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Last Updated on: 14th December 2023, 08:04 pm

The Key Differences Between Civil and Criminal Federal Appeals

If you ever find yourself involved in a legal dispute that ends up in federal court, whether civil or criminal, it’s important to understand the basics of the federal appeals process. I learned this the hard way when a business deal went south. My former business partner sued me for breach of contract in federal court. I lost at the trial court level and decided to appeal. Little did I know how complicated, time-consuming, and expensive the appeals process would be!

The Courts Involved in Civil vs. Criminal Federal Appeals

First, it’s important to understand the different courts involved. In the federal court system, a civil or criminal case will start out at the U.S. District Court level. Then, if there’s an appeal, it goes up to the U.S. Courts of Appeals. From there, a small fraction of cases get appealed again to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).

One key difference is that for criminal cases, it’s usually the defendant who appeals a conviction or sentence. But in civil cases, either party—plaintiff or defendant—can file an appeal if they lose.

The Legal Standards Used in Appeals

Another big difference is the legal standards used by appeals courts to review cases. Basically, appeals courts give more deference to lower court decisions in civil cases than criminal ones.

In criminal appeals, the question is usually whether an error by the trial court prejudiced the defendant enough to affect the outcome of the case. The appeals court takes a fresh look at the issues raised on appeal. They don’t just rubber stamp the lower court’s decision.

But for civil appeals, courts use the “clearly erroneous” standard to review findings of fact and an “abuse of discretion” standard for matters where the trial judge had discretion. So civil appeals courts tend to uphold lower court decisions unless they were clearly wrong or unreasonable, giving them extra deference.

Types of Issues Raised on Appeal

The types of issues raised on appeal also tend to differ between civil and criminal cases. In criminal appeals, common issues include:

  • Violations of the defendant’s constitutional rights, like illegal searches or self-incrimination
  • Insufficient evidence to support a conviction
  • Prosecutorial or judicial misconduct, like inappropriate comments that prejudiced the jury
  • Ineffective assistance of defense counsel
  • Sentencing errors, like miscalculation of sentencing guidelines
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Whereas in civil appeals, you typically see issues like:

  • Errors in evidentiary rulings or jury instructions
  • A verdict that goes against the weight of the evidence
  • Abuse of discretion by the trial judge, like allowing prejudicial testimony or denying a justified request
  • Errors in pre-trial rulings, like improperly denying a motion to dismiss or summary judgment motion

As you can see, civil appeals usually focus on legal or procedural errors during litigation. While criminal appeals raise more constitutional issues related to fundamental fairness and justice.

Rules About Timing of Appeals

The rules about when you can file appeals also vary significantly between civil and criminal cases. In civil cases, you typically have 30 days after entry of a final judgment to file a notice of appeal. Pretty straightforward.

But criminal appeals involve a longer, more complex process with strict deadlines. Defendants actually have to file several different types of appeals at different stages of the case. Here’s a quick overview:

  1. File a notice of appeal within 14 days after the entry of judgment. This starts the direct appeal of the conviction and/or sentence.
  2. File a motion for a new trial within 14 days after the verdict. If that’s denied, you get 14 more days to appeal that denial.
  3. File a petition for writ of certiorari within 90 days after the appeals court issues its judgment. This asks the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

There are also special rules for appealing pre-trial issues, like suppressed evidence or coerced confessions. Bottom line – the timing requirements for criminal appeals are complex so definitely consult an attorney if you’re facing criminal charges.

Impact of Appeals on Lower Court Judgments

Another major difference is that appealing a civil judgment does NOT prevent parties from enforcing that judgment while the appeal is pending. Unless the appeals court grants a stay, the winning party can still collect on the judgment, seize assets, etc. during the year or more that an appeal takes.

In criminal cases, however, filing an appeal puts the sentence on hold until the appeal is decided. The only exception is if the trial judge denies bail pending appeal. So appealing a conviction provides more immediate protections for criminal defendants.

Appellate Court Remedies Available

There’s also a significant difference in terms of the remedies available if you win your appeal. In civil cases, appeals courts typically just order a new trial if they find the lower court ruling was flawed in some way that affected the outcome. While they can technically modify a judgment or enter their own, they rarely due so.

But in criminal appeals, appellate courts have a lot more options to directly fix trial court errors. They may:

  • Reverse a conviction while dismissing or reducing charges
  • Vacate a sentence while remanding for re-sentencing
  • Modify a sentence if there was a miscalculation
  • Order a defendant’s release from prison or custody
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So criminal appeals courts have more power to directly impact a defendant’s rights and liberty interests based on the findings of an appeal.

Appellate Attorney Expertise

Given all these key differences, it also usually requires different types of specialized attorneys to handle civil vs. criminal federal appeals properly. So if you ever need to appeal, make sure you hire appellate counsel with specific experience in federal appeals handling cases like yours.

Most trial lawyers just don’t have the skills needed for appeals, which involve different procedures, rules, and legal standards. You want someone very familiar with things like: preserving the record below, appellate legal writing, standards of review, writ procedures, etc. Mistakes during oral arguments can also sink appeals, so experience matters.

On the criminal side, you want an appellate lawyer with deep knowledge of federal constitutional law, criminal statutes and procedures, sentencing guidelines, standards for ineffective assistance of counsel claims, standards for proving prosecutorial misconduct, etc. So find a true criminal appeals specialist.

For civil appeals, you want someone extremely well-versed in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Evidence, etc., the case law interpreting those rules, standards trial judges use in discretionary decisions and evidentiary rulings, and the high bar for proving civil trial errors justify reversal or a new trial.

Cost and Duration of Appeals

Finally, it’s important to understand just how expensive, time-consuming, and uncertain appeals can be in both civil and criminal cases. The average federal civil appeal takes about a year. But big, complex civil cases can drag on for several years with no guarantee you’ll win.

Meanwhile, the average federal criminal appeal takes 12-18 months. So if you lose at trial, you may spend years behind bars before your appeal gets decided. There are no quick fixes once you’re convicted.

Cost-wise, expect to spend around $25,000 to $50,000+ for a federal civil appeal, including attorney fees. Criminal appeals typically cost $15,000 to $30,000+. And there’s always a chance you pay all that but still lose your appeal!

The Bottom Line

As you can see, federal appeals have major, sometimes case-changing implications for those involved in civil disputes or facing criminal prosecution. The process varies greatly between civil and criminal cases in terms of legal standards, issues raised, timing requirements, available remedies, need for specialized attorneys, and cost/duration.

Hopefully you never need this info! But if you find yourself filing a federal appeal someday, at least now you know some of the key differences and can make informed decisions. Let me know if you have any other questions!