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Understanding the Federal Criminal Appeals Process: FAQ for Defendants

Understanding the Federal Criminal Appeals Process: FAQ for Defendants

So you’ve been convicted of a federal crime and want to appeal. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. The appeals process can be confusing, but this article breaks it down into an easy-to-understand FAQ so you know what to expect.

What is an appeal?

An appeal is when you ask a higher court to review your case because you think the trial court made a legal mistake. The first place to appeal a federal conviction is at the Circuit Court of Appeals. If they turn you down, you can try appealing to the Supreme Court but they only take about 1% of cases.

What are the grounds for an appeal?

There are two main reasons you can appeal a conviction:

  1. Procedural errors: This is when the trial court didn’t follow proper procedures, like letting in evidence they shouldn’t have. Even small mistakes like this can be grounds for an appeal if they affected the outcome.
  2. Incorrect application of the law: This is when you think the judge interpreted the law incorrectly as it applies to your case. For example, maybe they used the wrong definition of a term that ended up convicting you unfairly.

How long do I have to file an appeal?

You only have 14 days after the judgment to file a Notice of Appeal. This short deadline is to keep the courts running smoothly, but it can be extended if you show excusable neglect. Still though, don’t wait or you’ll lose your right to fight the conviction!

What does the appeals process look like step-by-step?

Here is the basic process after filing the Notice of Appeal:

  1. Order the trial transcript so the appeals court can review exactly what happened.
  2. File an appeals brief explaining the legal issues with your conviction and why it should be overturned. The government will also file a brief.
  3. Request oral arguments if you want to make your case in person in front of the appeals judges. This isn’t required but can help.
  4. The appeals court will review everything and make a ruling to uphold, reverse, or retry your case. This can take months.
  5. If you lose, request an en banc hearing for all the appeals judges to reconsider. If denied, petition the Supreme Court.

Do I need a lawyer to appeal a conviction?

Yes, absolutely. The appeals process has complicated procedures and strict deadlines. An experienced federal appeals lawyer is essential to have any chance of success. If you can’t afford a private attorney, request a public defender.

What if my appeal gets denied? Can I try again?

If the Circuit Court denies your appeal, you can request an en banc hearing where all the appeals judges reconsider your case. If that fails, petition to the Supreme Court. However, SCOTUS only accepts about 1% of petitions so the Circuit Court is usually the end of the road. Out of luck there unfortunately.

Will I have to serve my sentence while waiting for an appeal?

Yes, typically you’ll be in prison during the whole appeals process, even if it takes years. However, you can request to be out on bail under certain circumstances, like having a high chance of winning the appeal or a low flight risk.

How often do federal appeals overturn convictions?

Only around 10-15% of federal appeals are successful, so the odds are against you. But don’t let this discourage you from appealing if you have good grounds like procedural errors or legal mistakes. Even long shot appeals can win sometimes.

What happens if I win the appeal?

If the appeals court overturns your conviction, the case will either be thrown out completely or sent back to the trial court for a whole new trial. So you’re either off the hook or get another chance to fight the charges.

Can I get a reduced sentence from an appeal?

Yes! Even if your conviction stands, the appeals court can decide to reduce your prison sentence if they think it was too harsh. So appealing can be beneficial either way.

Is there anything I should NOT do during an appeal?

Yes, never represent yourself! Federal appeals are highly complex with strict deadlines and convoluted legal rules. Without an attorney, your appeal will almost surely fail no matter how good your case is. Appoint legal counsel or game over.

What if I pleaded guilty – can I still appeal?

If you pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain, your appeal rights are very limited. You usually can’t appeal over the actual conviction since you admitted guilt. However, you may be able to appeal aspects like your sentence or restitution. Talk to a lawyer.

How much does a federal appeal lawyer cost?

The cost varies widely, but expect to spend around $25,000-$100,000+ on legal fees if your case goes through all levels of appeals. Big appeals can get extremely expensive, so start fundraising if needed!

And that covers the basics of understanding federal criminal appeals! Remember, the odds are stacked against you, but with an excellent lawyer and air-tight case for overturning your conviction, you just may get lucky. Don’t sit around in prison for years wishing you had filed an appeal – take action now! Consult with a federal appeals attorney to discuss your legal options. Best of luck!

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