The California Appeals Process

Finding out you’ve been convicted of a crime can be devastating. But, courts and juries don’t always get it right. So, what do you do next? In some cases, you should consult an attorney about whether your case should be appealed. At Gressley & Donaldson, we can help you figure out your options for appeals. Contact us today.  

What is an appeal? 

A criminal conviction appeal is a legal process where a defendant who has been found guilty in a criminal trial seeks to overturn their conviction or sentence. The appeal is not a new trial and does not involve presenting new evidence. Instead, it focuses on whether the trial was conducted fairly and in accordance with the law, and whether the legal and procedural decisions made were correct.

If you are just trying to wrap your head around how the appeals process will work, here is a brief summary of the process:

  1. Filing a Notice of Appeal: This is the first step, where a notice is filed with the trial court within a specific time frame after the judgment.
  2. Obtaining the Record on Appeal: The record, comprising the clerk’s transcript and the reporter’s transcript, is essential for the appeal. It provides the factual basis for the case as appeals courts do not consider new evidence.
  3. Submitting Briefs: Both sides submit briefs. The appellant’s brief argues for errors in the trial, while the respondent’s brief defends the trial’s outcome.
  4. Oral Arguments: Not always required, this step allows lawyers to present their arguments before a panel of judges.
  5. Court’s Decision: The appellate court delivers a written decision, which may agree with or overturn the trial court’s decision.

What standard of review will the court use?

A standard of review is a guideline used by appellate courts to evaluate the decisions made by a lower court. It determines the degree of deference the appellate court gives to the decisions of the trial court. The standard of review varies depending on the nature of the issue under appeal, such as factual findings, legal conclusions, or procedural matters. This standard is crucial in appeals as it influences how closely the appellate court scrutinizes the lower court’s decision and under what circumstances it might be overturned.

  • “Abuse of Discretion” Standard: This standard is applied when reviewing decisions where the trial court had significant discretion, such as sentencing. The appellate court checks if the trial court’s decision was arbitrary or capricious.
  • “Substantial Evidence” Standard: Used in factual determinations, this standard reviews whether there was substantial evidence to support the trial court’s findings.
  • “De Novo” Standard: This is used for questions of law, where the appellate court re-examines the issue without deference to the trial court’s decision.

Each standard influences how the appellate court views the trial court’s decisions, ranging from deferential to independent review.

How to Appeal a Criminal Conviction in California 

So, now that we’ve covered the basics, how do you actually appeal a criminal conviction in California? First, you’ll need to file a notice of appeal:

Notice of Appeal

Filing a notice of appeal in a criminal law case in California involves a series of specific steps and requirements, governed by the California Rules of Court, Title 8. These steps are crucial for anyone convicted in the California Superior Court seeking to appeal their conviction. The process is intricate and time-sensitive, making it advisable to have a knowledgeable California appeals lawyer.

After a conviction in the California Superior Court, either through a bench trial or jury trial, you have a limited window to file a notice of appeal. This period ranges from 30 to 60 days following the trial court judgment. Adhering to this timeframe is critical, as missing the deadline can significantly jeopardize the case.

A general notice of appeal can be filed after a final judgment, which could include various scenarios. You don’t have to specify particular issues for appeal at this stage. However, there can be complexities in certain appeals, like when appealing guilty or “no contest” pleas, probation violations, or issues related to California’s search and seizure laws. Consult an attorney with expertise in these areas for more information.

It’s important to note that if the deadlines are missed, you may still seek relief from default. This can be based on the failure of the trial attorney to perform duties related to the appeal, such as advising about the right to appeal or filing the notice upon request. The court may also grant relief based on the principle of constructive filing, which applies when there are delays in mailing the notice of appeal by prison authorities or when the defendant, representing themselves, files it with the wrong court but within the appropriate time frame.

The court may grant relief if it’s shown that neither the attorney nor the court advised the defendant of their right to appeal, or if there are other reasons like misleading information from prison officials or court officers.

Obtain the Record on Appeal

After filing a notice of appeal in a criminal case in California, the next step is to obtain a record of the trial proceedings. This record, often referred to as the “clerk’s transcript,” includes all the documents filed in the trial court, such as motions, briefs, and rulings. Additionally, the appellant needs to secure a “reporter’s transcript,” which is a word-for-word account of what was said during the trial, including testimonies and arguments.

The appellate court relies on these transcripts to evaluate the validity of the arguments raised in the appeal. It’s important to note that the responsibility of ordering and ensuring the completeness of these transcripts typically falls on the appellant and their counsel.

Submit Briefs

Following the acquisition of the trial record, the next pivotal step in a criminal appeal is the briefing phase. This phase begins with the appellant’s opening brief, which is a comprehensive document where the appellant presents their arguments, points out alleged errors that occurred during the trial, and explains why a reversal or modification of the trial court’s decision is justified. The appellant’s brief must be grounded in the trial record and the applicable law.

After the submission of the opening brief, the respondent (usually the state, represented by the prosecutor) files a respondent’s brief. This brief counters the arguments of the appellant, aiming to demonstrate that the trial was fair, the verdict was just, and that no legal errors warranting a reversal occurred.

Finally, the appellant has the opportunity to file a reply brief. This document allows the appellant to address specific points made in the respondent’s brief and is typically shorter than the opening brief.

Present Oral Arguments

After the briefing phase in a criminal appeal, the next step is the oral argument. This stage offers both parties the opportunity to present their arguments verbally and directly to the appellate court. During oral arguments, the attorneys for both the appellant and the respondent appear before a judge or panel of judges to reinforce the points made in their written briefs. It also allows the judges to ask the attorneys questions.

Receive the Court’s Decision

Following the oral argument in a criminal appeal, the next and final step is receiving the court’s decision. This decision, known as an opinion, is issued by the appellate court after a thorough review and deliberation of the trial record, the written briefs, and the points raised during the oral arguments.

The court’s opinion can affirm, reverse, or modify the decision of the lower court. In some cases, the court may also remand the case back to the lower court for further proceedings consistent with the appellate court’s findings. This opinion is typically written and provides a detailed explanation of the court’s reasoning, including how it interpreted the law and applied it to the facts of the case.

The issuance of the court’s decision marks the culmination of the appellate process, ultimately determining the outcome of the appeal and setting a precedent for future cases.

Seek Further Review

After receiving the appellate court’s opinion in a criminal appeal, you have to decide whether to seek further review. This decision depends on the outcome and the legal significance of the appellate court’s decision. If the party on the losing end believes that there were substantial legal errors in the appellate court’s decision or that the case has significant implications, they may consider petitioning for a review by a higher court.

In California, this typically means seeking review from the California Supreme Court. The higher court’s acceptance of a review is discretionary and not automatic. The court may choose to hear the case if it presents novel legal questions, conflicts with existing precedents, or is of statewide importance. If the decision is made not to seek further review, the appellate court’s decision remains final.

After a decision is rendered by a Court of Appeal in a criminal case, there are several avenues for further legal action, each with its unique processes and considerations:

Rehearing by the Court of Appeal:

If a party believes that the Court of Appeal has overlooked or misunderstood significant facts or legal principles in its decision, they can file a petition for a rehearing. This petition must be filed typically within a short, specified period after the decision (often 15 days in California). The purpose of a rehearing is not to introduce new evidence or arguments but to request the court to reconsider aspects of the case based on the evidence and arguments already presented.

Review by the California Supreme Court

If the decision of the Court of Appeal is unfavorable, a party can petition for review by the California Supreme Court. This petition must be filed within a certain period (usually 40 days after the Court of Appeal’s decision). The California Supreme Court has discretionary power in deciding which cases to review, and it typically selects cases that have wide-ranging implications, involve significant legal issues, or necessitate the resolution of discrepancies in the law.

Review by the U.S. Supreme Court

Finally, in some instances, a party may seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court after the California Supreme Court has rendered its decision, or if the California Supreme Court declines to review the case. This is achieved by filing a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court. This federal review is generally reserved for cases that raise significant federal questions or constitutional issues, or when there is a need to resolve conflicting decisions among different state supreme courts or federal circuit courts. Only a small fraction of petitions are granted. If the U.S. Supreme Court decides to hear a case, its decision is final and binding across the United States.

Frequently Asked Questions

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Can I post bail while on appeal?

In some cases, you can post bail while on appeal, especially if the appeal is based on significant legal issues and the court believes you are not a flight risk or a danger to the community.

What is in the transcripts? The transcripts contain a word-for-word record of everything said in court during the trial, including witness testimonies, attorney arguments, and judge’s rulings.

What is the appellant’s opening brief? 

The appellant’s opening brief is a detailed document where the appellant outlines their arguments against the trial court’s decision, highlighting alleged errors and legal grounds for reversal or modification.

What is the respondent’s opening brief? 

The respondent’s opening brief counters the appellant’s arguments, aiming to show the trial was fair and the decision should be upheld.

What is the appellant’s reply brief? 

It’s a subsequent document responding to the respondent’s brief, addressing specific points and reinforcing the appellant’s original arguments.

What happens at oral arguments?

Attorneys from both sides present and clarify their positions before the appellate judges, who may ask questions to understand the case better.

What is a petition for rehearing? 

It’s a request for the Court of Appeal to reconsider its decision, usually due to significant facts or legal principles being overlooked or misunderstood.

What is a petition for review? 

It’s a formal request asking a higher court, such as the California Supreme Court or the U.S. Supreme Court, to examine and rule on a lower court’s decision.

At Gressley & Donaldson, we can help you navigate the California criminal appeals process. We can evaluate your options together, and determine a path forward – even when your prospects feel dim. Call us today for a consultation about your case. 

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