There are basic aspects of the federal criminal appeals process that are sometimes unclear. This is primarily because the process is not what most people would expect. For starters, most of the time it doesn’t actually involve in-person contact. In fact, approximately 75 percent of cases are resolved on brief. This means parties involved submit briefs that are reviewed by appellate judges who issue a ruling. Yes, there’s the other 25 percent of cases in which oral arguments may be heard, but there is only a slight chance of that happening.
The purpose of a federal criminal appeal is to challenge an order or judgment made by a district court by presenting the alleged legal error or issue to an appellate court. This does not include hearing or re-opening the facts of the case. For clarification, it’s important to know that an appeal and a trial have very little in common, if anything. As mentioned previously, most federal criminal appeals are resolved on brief without there ever being any in-person interaction. This is an aspect of the process that some people find difficult because there’s an assumption that oral arguments will always be made.
When you’re dealing with a district court case, there’s a good chance that a jury, witnesses, and a court reporter will be involved in the process. Not so with a federal criminal appeal. That’s because federal appellate courts serve a different purpose and they are not courts of record. Their job is to analyze the merits of a case based on the information presented in briefs and sometimes in oral arguments. In other words, it’s not a retrial and no new facts about the case will be heard. However, there is a considerable amount of effort that goes into examining whether any legal errors were made during the trial as alleged.
From a procedural standpoint, a notice of appeal is submitted within ten days of the conviction for the purpose of notifying the appellate and district court of the intention to appeal. Since the process must start quickly, it’s necessary to hire an attorney as soon as possible. This should be an appellate lawyer that’s knowledgeable and experienced; if for no other reason than to ensure they are able to write an exceptional brief. If you work with a lawyer that’s adept at oral arguments, but not writing appellate court briefs, you minimize your chances of winning an appeal. Keep in mind that they will also need to have good research skills given the importance of precedence when dealing with appeals.
If you are unable to retain an appellate lawyer or your trial lawyer is unable to represent you during the appeal, you can have them file either a notice of appeal or a pro se notice on your behalf. The purpose of a pro se notice is to inform the court that you will be filing a notice of appeal with the help of counsel. You can actually find a federal notice of appeal online if it becomes necessary in order to submit the form within the ten day period. Although legal processes can seem complicated and intimidating, it’s relatively easy to submit a notice of appeal.
As you embark upon the appeals process, you should have realistic expectations concerning the amount of time it will take, which can be anywhere from months to years. Keep in mind that the process requires appellate judges to review many of the case files in order to make a decision about whether a legal error occurred. There are hundreds of cases reviewed and most of them will take a considerable amount of time. If you want to get an estimate on the approximate timeframe, you can get general information through the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. While it takes an average of a year to receive a ruling, the timeframe varies depending on where you’re located.