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Criminal Appeals in California

California Criminal Appeals

Misdemeanor Appeals & Felony Appeals

To appeal the decision of a case means to have a new court (the appellate court) review the process of a civil or criminal trial to determine whether or not the process of the trial was fair to a civil litigant or for a defendant in a criminal trial. There are appeals available for California state court decisions as well as appeals for federal court decisions.

This article reviews the process of appealing the conviction of a defendant in a California state court criminal case (the vast majority of criminal cases in California are handled at the state court level). This article does not deal with civil appeals or appeals in federal cases.

In California, there are three classification of crimes; an infraction, a misdemeanor, and a felony. All three classifications of crime have an appeal process in California. This article deals with the process of appealing a misdemeanor or felony conviction only. The process for appealing infractions, such as traffic violation convictions, is not covered here.

In addition, a criminal case that is appealed may have the decision of the court of appeals reviewed again through another reviewing court called the Supreme Court of California. In some cases, an appeal of a state court decision may appealed directly to federal court where United States Constitutional issues are involved.

For starters, every conviction for a misdemeanor or felony in California may be appealed. The conviction does not have to lead to a jail or prison sentence for the conviction to be appealed. Appeals may be filed where the defendant was found guilty by a judge or a jury and where the defendant was sentenced to jail or prison, sentenced to an insane asylum, or sentenced to either jail or an insane asylum, after a probation revocation hearing.

It is also possible to appeal a guilty plea or a no contest plea (also known as nolo contendere); however, appealing a conviction after a guilty plea or no contest plea may only be based on improper sentencing by a judge or on search and seizure violations based on the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The appeals court uses only the transcripts from the trial court to determine whether or not there were any errors in the trial court which prejudiced the defendant. Errors at the trial court level include, but are definitely not limited to the following:

1) A wrong ruling of law by a judge, such as allowing or not allowing evidence erroneously.

2) Prosecutor misconduct, such as referring to prejudicial and inadmissible evidence in front of the jury.

3) Jury misconduct, such as jurors not following the law or improperly influencing other jurors by threats or fear.

4) The defendant's trial counsel (defense attorney) was incompetent, such as where the defense attorney misses obvious and otherwise winning arguments against the admission of damaging evidence. 

The court of appeals does not question whether or not the defendant is innocent or guilty; it does not listen to new evidence or reconsider evidence; it does not stand as a new trier of the facts. The appeals court simply looks for issues of misapplied law, misconduct, or incompetence, by either the judge, the jury, the prosecutor, or the defense attorney.

If the appeals court finds error occurred the appeals court will then decide whether or not that error was harmless or prejudicial. If the appeals court finds there was error and that error was not harmless (meaning it was prejudicial to the defendant) then the court of appeals may send the case back (remand) to the trial court for a new trial, or it may simply reverse the decision of the trial court.

If the appeals court finds that there was no error, or that there was error at the trial level but that the error was not prejudicial to the defendant (meaning that the error was harmless) then the appeals court will affirm the decision of the trial court.

The process of an appeal for California criminal convictions

After a final judgment, which is a conviction and a sentence to either jail, prison, probation, or to an insane asylum, the defendant may file an appeal. An appeal must be filed with the trial court within sixty days of a felony conviction and thirty days of misdemeanor conviction.

There are some reasons why these time lines might be augmented but those reasons rely on the defendant having to make an argument to the trial judge which is based on inexcusable neglect or improper advice from a defense attorney, deputy, or judge. It may be fatal to a defendant's case to miss the deadline to file an appeal.

After the appeal is filed the defendant's appeals attorney files a brief on behalf of the defendant (now called the appellant). The appeals brief is very complicated and usually very lengthy. The appeals brief contains the arguments made on behalf of the appellant that describes the errors made at the trial level and the prejudice suffered by the appellant. The brief argues the law, the misconduct, or the incompetence as discussed above, not the facts of the appellant's underlying criminal case. 

After the appellant files his or her brief the prosecutor files its response. The response address the issues raised in the appellant's brief. Thereafter, the appellant is allowed to file a reply to the prosecutor's (now called the respondent) brief. After all the briefs are submitted, including supplemental briefs as may be required by the appeals court, the parties may make oral argument to a three judge panel of appeals judges. When two or more judges agree on a decision, whether to affirm or overturn a conviction, the appeals court will have reached its decision.

The process for filing an appeal in a felony case is very complicated and the rules are very strict. Every step of the appeals process is governed by technical rules that govern all aspect of the filing, timing, and format of the appeal itself.

The amount of time it takes to appeal a criminal conviction usually takes about a year for felonies and several months for misdemeanors. How long it takes to appeal a criminal conviction depends on the length of the trial and the complication of the issues.

In some cases, a judge may allow the defendant to be released on bail while he or she is awaiting his or her appeal decision. As long as the trial judge does not believe that the defendant is wasting time to stay out of custody, is not a flight risk, and is not a danger to the community, the judge may, in the its discretion, allow for a defendant to be released on bail while awaiting the decision of the appeals court. The amount of bail is usually set by law but the judge has discretion to raise or lower the appeals bond.

Finally, in some cases, the appellant's attorney does not find any valid reasons to support an appeal. In these cases the appellant's attorney will file a Wende brief, which is a general appeal. A Wende brief tells the court that the appellant's attorney did not see any valid reasons for an appeals but never-the-less would like for the court of appeals to review the transcripts in total to determine whether or not the court of appeals can find issues of appeal (after all, the appeals attorney may be incompetent in finding appeal issues).

California Misdemeanor Appeals

The process for appealing a conviction for a misdemeanor crime is virtually the same as the process for appealing a felony conviction. The legal issues that are addressed are the same as well. The main difference is that an appeal from a guilty verdict or probation revocation order must be filed within thirty days of a final judgment (felony appeals must be filed within sixty days of a final judgment).

In addition, misdemeanor appeals are heard by a superior court judge as opposed to a three judge panel of appellate court judges. Also, misdemeanor appeals proceed very quickly (usually within a few months), whereas felony appeals can take years.

Finally, an appellant in a misdemeanor case is rarely in custody and therefore the necessity of bail on appeal is not usually required.

To learn more about how to appeal a criminal conviction in California, including misdemeanor appeals and felony appeals, contact criminal defense attorney Christopher Dorado today. Attorney Dorado and his team of criminal defense attorneys handle appeals in all state court criminal convictions for misdemeanors and felonies. Consultations are provided at no cost to the defendant or his or her family. Call today!


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