Appealing a Federal Criminal Conviction: 3 Things You Need to Understand
When you are found guilty of committing a federal crime, you have the right to appeal. An appeal is basically when you ask a higher court to review a decision made by a lower court. An appeal is not a re-trial. Rather, it is an opportunity for the higher court to review certain legal decisions made by the lower court. If those decisions were incorrect, then you may be entitled to a new trial, a new sentencing hearing, or in some cases have your criminal case dismissed outright.
The federal appellate process is often confusing for individuals who have never dealt with the system before. So here are a few basic things to know about how federal appeals work.
- In Virginia, all federal criminal appeals are heard by the same court.
The federal judicial system is divided into a number of districts. Here in Virginia, there are the Eastern and Western districts. Fairfax is in the Eastern District, so if you are charged with a federal crime here, that is the court where your case will be tried.
In between the district court and the U.S. Supreme Court are 13 intermediate appellate courts. Eleven of those courts are numbered and assigned to specific geographic areas. Virginia is part of the Fourth Circuit, which also includes Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. This means any federal criminal appeal from these four states are heard by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in Richmond.
- Filing an Appeal Is Just the First Step in the Process.
You will sometimes hear people say they have “filed an appeal.” What this typically means is that they have filed a legal document called a “Notice of Appeal.” This is actually just the first step in the federal appeals process.
The Notice of Appeal itself is usually a one- or two-page document that simply states a person wishes to appeal from a final judgment entered by a district court. In criminal cases, the Notice of Appeal must be filed within 14 days of the judgment. This may not sound like a lot of time, but again, the Notice is just a document to get the ball rolling on the appeal. It is not the substance of the actual appeal.
- Federal Appeals Are Not Like Trials.
If you have gone through a criminal trial before a jury, you might expect a similar amount of in-court activity when it comes to an appeal. But that is generally not the case. Appeals are largely handled by having both sides–your lawyer and the United States Attorney’s office–filing written briefs with the Fourth Circuit. The briefs contain the substantive legal arguments for both sides. The Fourth Circuit will also have access to the written records of your trial for reference. This usually provides sufficient information for the Court to decide your appeal.
In some cases, the Fourth Circuit will hold oral arguments. Again, this is not the same thing as a trial. There are no witnesses or testimony. An oral argument simply means each side’s lawyers will have a short amount of time–usually just 15 or 20 minutes per side–to answer any questions the appellate judges might have about the case.
Finally, unlike a trial where there is a single judge, Fourth Circuit appeals are usually handled by three-judge panels. The good news is that you only need a majority vote–2 of the 3–to win your appeal. But here, too, winning does not necessarily mean your case is over. In criminal cases, a successful appeal often just means you are entitled to a new trial before a new jury.
If you have additional questions about the federal appeals process and need legal advice from an experienced Fairfax criminal defense attorney, contact Whitestone Young, PC, today to schedule a consultation.