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Federal Criminal Appeals FAQ: Understanding the Appeals Process

Federal Criminal Appeals FAQ: Understanding the Appeals Process

So you or your loved one was convicted of a federal crime and sentenced in district court. Now what? Many defendants feel hopeless after a conviction, but appealing the decision is an important next step. This article covers some frequently asked questions about federal criminal appeals to help you understand the process.

What exactly is an appeal?

An appeal is when a higher court reviews a decision from a lower court to see if any legal errors were made. The lower court is called the “trial court” or “district court” in federal cases. The higher court is called the “appellate court” or “court of appeals.”

In an appeal, the appellate court does not retry the entire case or hear new evidence. Instead, it looks at the record of what happened in the lower court and the judge’s rulings on points of law. The appellate court then decides if the conviction and/or sentence should stand based on the law.

Do I have an automatic right to appeal a federal conviction?

Yes! Every person convicted of a federal crime has the right to one appeal to the federal appellate court over their geographic region. There are 13 total circuit courts that cover appeals for different areas of the country.

You don’t need to request an appeal – it’s automatic. All you have to do is file a Notice of Appeal within 14 days after the entry of the judgment against you. This short deadline is strict, so don’t delay in finding an appellate attorney to help after a conviction.

What are the grounds for a federal criminal appeal?

There are several reasons you can appeal a federal conviction or sentence. Some of the most common appeal grounds include:

  • Evidentiary errors: The trial judge allowed improper evidence or excluded important evidence.
  • Procedural errors: The trial did not follow proper court procedures.
  • Ineffective assistance of counsel: Your defense attorney did a poor job representing you.
  • Disproportionate sentencing: Your sentence far outweighed the crime.

The best appeals find clear mistakes with the law, like the examples above. You can’t simply say “I’m innocent” or relitigate small factual discrepancies from trial. The appeals court cares about legal errors – not retrying the entire case.

How does the federal criminal appeals process actually work?

The appeals process has a number of important steps:

1. Filing the Notice of Appeal

This short document “notifies” the court you plan to appeal. It must be filed within 14 days of the conviction judgment. This deadline is strict, so don’t delay finding an appellate attorney.

2. Ordering the Trial Transcripts

The court reporters must prepare transcripts of everything said during the trial and sentencing. This can take up to 90 days.

3. Filing Appellate Briefs

These legal documents lay out the facts of your case and explain why you should win the appeal. The defendant files their brief first, followed by the government’s response.

4. Oral Arguments (Sometimes)

In some cases, the attorneys appear before a 3-judge panel to argue why the appeal should succeed or fail. Many cases skip this step.

5. The Appellate Decision

Finally, the judges issue an opinion deciding if the conviction/sentence stands or if errors require reversal or resentencing.

The appeals process takes around 12-18 months in most federal criminal cases. It’s a long road, but critical for challenging convictions.

If I win the appeal, what happens next?

There are a few potential outcomes if you win a federal criminal appeal:

  • New trial: The appeals court might order a whole new trial if errors were so severe in the first one.
  • Resentencing: If the only big mistakes were with your sentence, the appeals court returns the case to the lower court for resentencing.
  • Charges dismissed: In rare cases, the appeals court decides the charges should have been dismissed altogether. This results in total freedom.
  • Plea deal: After a successful appeal, prosecutors often offer plea bargains rather than go through another expensive trial.

The outcome depends on the specifics of your case and the reasons for the appeal’s success. But winning an appeal opens up new possibilities.

Can I represent myself in a federal criminal appeal?

It is technically possible to handle your own criminal appeal without an attorney. But this is an extremely bad idea for all but the simplest cases.

Federal appeals are full of complicated rules and procedures. Most defendants attempting federal appeals without lawyers end up having their appeals dismissed without even a ruling.

Instead, you should absolutely have an appellate attorney assisting with your criminal appeal. Look for someone experienced specifically in federal criminal defense appeals for the best results.

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