Guide to the Federal Criminal Appeals Process

The federal criminal appeals process determines how appeals are heard in United States courts.

Navigating the process effectively is critical to reaching a favorable outcome in your case.

In this guide, the Shealey Law Firm federal criminal defense attorneys explain the appeal process. We’ll discuss:

  • Who can appeal?
  • When can you appeal?
  • How to appeal?
  • What to appeal?
  • What happens if you win or lose?

Why appeal?

The federal criminal appeals process serves multiple purposes. It ensures that we have uniform laws, applied fairly throughout the United States. In addition, it protects against unjust convictions and deprivation of liberty.

Who Can Appeal in Federal Court?

If you are convicted at trial in federal court, you have the right to appeal. In addition, either the defendant or the government can appeal a sentence. A defendant may have grounds to appeal a conviction by plea, for example a conditional plea made under Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 11(a)(2).

Can the government appeal if you are found not guilty in federal court?

No. If you’re found not guilty at trial in federal court, the case against you is dismissed. The government cannot appeal.

When Can You Appeal in Federal Court?

To appeal a criminal conviction in federal court, you file a notice of appeal within 14 days of the entry of judgment or the filing of the government’s notice of appeal. The Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure Rule 4(b)(1)(A) says that the appeal timeline begins from the entry of judgment or entry of order dismissing any motions for acquittal, new trial or arrest of judgment.

The court may extend the timeline for appeal for up to 30 days for good cause.

How Do You Appeal in Federal Court?

To appeal in federal court, you file paperwork stating your intent to appeal, explaining ways that the District Court made a mistake in the proceedings against you. An appeal is not a new trial. Instead, it’s a review of mistakes or wrong decisions that make the verdict against you unfair. To make your appeal, you state all issues and mistakes that you believe occurred in the trial court. You explain the error, cite any relevant laws or cases and explain the facts. You make arguments and request that the court find in your favor.

Appeals in federal court are governed by the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure. There are content and format requirements for legal filings. Your attorney will prepare lengthy court documents called briefs. The other side can respond, and you can reply to their response. There are court rules creating timelines for submitting briefs in a federal criminal appeal.

Issues that may be raised on appeal include:

  • Evidence was improperly admitted or excluded
  • Jury instructions were incorrect
  • Interpretation of law, incorrect law applied
  • Refusal to exclude a biased juror
  • Incorrect ruling on a preliminary motion
  • Violation of constitutional rights
  • The evidence does not support a conviction
  • Admitting a confession improperly

Appeal briefs and oral arguments

A federal criminal appeal is decided mostly on the written record. There may be oral arguments, but often, the courts decide an appeal based on submitted documents and supporting materials alone.

Identifying appealable issues and effectively stating your position in written court submissions are the keys to success in a federal criminal appeal.

How does a federal appeals court decide a criminal appeal?

Appeal following a federal criminal conviction is based on the lower court record. The appeal reviews the U.S. District Court proceedings, looking for errors. If they believe that the lower court made a mistake, they determine if the error was prejudicial or harmless. In other words, did the mistake influence the outcome of the proceedings? If so, the conviction may be vacated.

The appeals court doesn’t hear new evidence. They review the record of the lower court proceeding.

Transcripts and court records can be used to evaluate what happened in the lower court.

If I file a federal appeal, will I have a new trial?

A federal appeal does not mean a new trial. In fact, it doesn’t mean any new evidence at all. The court looks at the record of the lower court and determines if mistakes were made. They don’t call witnesses or receive new exhibits into evidence.

What happens if there are issues that require new evidence? Questions of ineffective assistance of counsel, prosecutorial and juror misconduct and new evidence of innocence may need to be addressed, but there’s a different procedure for raising these types of issues.

What Happens if You Win Your Federal Criminal Appeal?

Usually, if you win your federal criminal appeal, your case is remanded, or sent back to the lower court, for a new trial. It’s possible that the court could dismiss your case based on a law being unconstitutional, but it’s unlikely. Most often, the government can put you on trial again if they choose to do so.

If a case is remanded, the lower court must abide by the ruling of the appeals court. For example, if the court of appeals ruled that a certain piece of evidence was improperly admitted in lower court proceedings, the lower court may not admit the evidence in the new trial.

Having a ruling change may ultimately change the outcome of a new trial. In addition, the government may choose not to retry the case, or they may be willing to offer a more favorable plea agreement.

What Happens if Lose Your Federal Criminal Appeal?

Appeal is a matter of right to the U.S. Circuit Courts. However, you need leave to appeal to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court hears only 100-150 cases each year, so it’s unlikely that a case will be heard. If an appeal is granted, there are Rules of the Supreme Court that govern the proceedings.

Lawyers for Federal Criminal Appeals

At Shealey Law Firm, we take your rights seriously. Our lawyers know the federal criminal appeals process, and we can assist you.

There are strict time deadlines, so contact us now at 803-590-3917 or online.


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