Legal Errors that can Lead to Successful Criminal Appeals

A guilty verdict (or even a guilty plea) may feel like the end of the line. But an appeal of a conviction and/or sentence always provides hope for a second chance and, perhaps, a different outcome. You have the absolute right in both the state and federal systems to appeal any conviction and any accompanying sentence. If you have pled guilty rather than risking trial, though, your appellate rights may be limited, depending on whether you signed a plea agreement in which you agreed to waive your right to appeal. Regardless, any successful appeal depends on identifying legal errors committed by the trial court, presenting them in a compelling fashion to an appellate court and arguing that they violated your right to, and prevented you from receiving, a fair trial.

Because every case is different, every appeal presents different issues. Some of the more common appellate issues, though, are listed below. For more information about your specific case and circumstances, call Protass Law PLLC at 212.455.0335 or use our online contact form.

Failure to Suppress Evidence

There are strict rules governing what evidence is admissible – that is, what evidence a jury is permitted to hear and examine. The decision by your judge to “let in” evidence that should have been excluded may well have changed the trajectory of your case. Examples of evidence that defense lawyers often fight to exclude include evidence seized in violation of your Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, evidence seized without a proper warrant and/or a showing of probable cause and prejudicial evidence that has little probative value. Specific examples of evidence that a lawyer might fight to exclude include cell phone records and cell site data, video recordings from surveillance cameras and non-favorable DNA reports. If the judge on your case erred in allowing the jury to hear or examine evidence that it should not have been permitted to hear or examine, you may have grounds for a successful appeal.

Failure to Suppress a Statement

You may have made a statement (an admission or otherwise) to law enforcement during the course or its investigation or following your arrest. But just because you made a statement does not mean that a jury should be able to learn what you said. So, for example, any statement that you may have made should be suppressed – that is, excluded from the body of evidence that the jury is permitted to consider – if it was compelled or otherwise made or taken in violation of your Sixth Amendment right to counsel. You may have grounds for appeal if your judge let your jury hear what you said if your statement should instead have been suppressed.

Erroneous Jury Instructions

At the end of your trial, the judge “charged” the jury – that is, the judge instructed the jury on the law applicable to the charges against you, described the elements of the offenses with which you were charged and told the jury that the government bears the burden of proving you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge also likely informed the jury that it could not hold the fact that you did not testify against you (if you chose not to testify). And the judge likely instructed the jury generally on how to go about its deliberations. Though some standard “charges” exist, judges typically customize those “charges” for each individual case. And, in doing so, judges sometimes make mistakes and provide erroneous jury instructions, which are another fertile ground for a winning appeal.

Insufficient Evidence

If the prosecution does not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt but you are convicted nevertheless, you may well have grounds for an appeal, even though appellate courts do not hear actual witness testimony or review evidence. You therefore may be entitled to a new trial if you can establish for an appellate court that the government presented insufficient evidence at trial to satisfy its burden of proving you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Prosecutorial Misconduct

Prosecutors are not permitted to do anything to secure a conviction. Rather, they have a specific job to do – seek the truth and try to achieve justice. Prosecutors, though, have been known to use underhanded and sometimes even illegal techniques to obtain a conviction. If you have evidence that the prosecutor on your case acted in bad faith or engaged in any unlawful or unethical practice, you may have grounds for an appeal.

Juror Misconduct

Serving on a jury is an important obligation. But jurors are not infallible. They might – in direct contravention of what the judge tells them – discuss the case with family members, research the defendant online, bring outside evidence into the jury room or explore theories about the case outside of court. Such misconduct is simply not permitted. If you discover that any juror engaged in any such or similar conduct, you may have fruitful grounds for appeal.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants “effective” representation by an attorney. If, however, your attorney performs so poorly that s/he actually hindered your case or, for example, failed entirely to explore avenues that could generate a viable defense, you may be entitled to a new trial. While there are countless ways in which an attorney could provide ineffective assistance, the post-conviction proceeding in which you will be permitted to present a Sixth Amendment ineffective assistance of counsel claim depends on the circuit in which you were convicted. Some circuits permit such claims on direct appeal. Others require that they be presented in 28 U.S.C. § 2555 petitions, which are generally filed after a direct appeal fails and assert that you are being held in violation of your constitutional rights.

Excessive Sentence

Courts generally have wide discretion when imposing sentence. But that does not mean that their sentencing determinations are free from appellate review. In the federal system, sentences can be “procedurally unreasonable” or “substantively unreasonable.” A sentence is procedurally unreasonable if a judge does not follow the proper procedures in imposing sentence, such as calculating a defendant’s offense level under the United States Sentencing Guidelines or accounting for each of the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) sentencing factors when determining the length of a prison term. A sentence is also procedurally unreasonable when a judge determines sentence length based on any number of characteristics that they are prohibited from considering, such as race, gender, sexual orientation and the like. A sentence is “substantively unreasonable” when an appellate court essentially finds that it is too long for the offense of conviction. While each state has its own standards for the review of sentences, an appeal by a defendant from a sentence in New York may be based on the ground that such sentence either was: (1) invalid as a matter of law; or (2) harsh and excessive. A sentence is invalid as a matter of law, in turn, not only when the terms thereof are unauthorized but also when it is based upon an erroneous determination that the defendant had a prior valid conviction.

Get the Representation You Deserve With Protass Law PLLC

If you didn’t get the fair trial you deserve, or if you received a sentence that was too long, we are here to help. Discuss the details of your case with Protass Law PLLC. Send us an email or call us at 212.455.0335 to schedule your consultation.