Can I Appeal a Criminal Conviction in Pennsylvania?
Being found guilty of a crime is always a frightening and traumatic experience. However, you don’t necessarily have to accept the guilty conviction as final. If you disagree with the court’s findings, you can appeal your conviction to seek a different judgment from a new trial. Our criminal defense lawyers explain what to expect during the criminal appeals process.
The Pennsylvania Appeals Process
Before we start, it’s important to note that if you pleaded guilty, you cannot appeal. Instead, you’ll need to make a motion to withdraw your plea with the help of a lawyer. The appeals process applies to convictions rather than pleas.
The appeals process can be lengthy and complicated, so it is always advisable to proceed with the help and guidance of an experienced defense attorney. Otherwise, you increase the risk of missing a deadline, making a mistake, or leaving out a crucial detail which could help positively impact your case.
To start the appeals process in Pennsylvania, first you and your defense attorney will need to establish legal grounds for appealing, such as objecting to evidence which is inadmissible. Inadmissible evidence (i.e. evidence which does not follow the established rules of evidence) might involve evidence which was obtained illegally (such as through a warrantless search where a warrant was necessary), hearsay evidence not based on accepted fact, or evidence whose production violates time limits.
Next, you’ll need to file a post-sentence motion (on which the court must rule within 120 days) before you can actually appeal your sentence. At this point, you’ll have to file your notice of appeal with the Clerk of the Court of Common Pleas, which includes giving two copies to the Court Clerk. Your defense lawyer will take care of this step for you so that your paperwork is timely and accurate.
Once the notice is filed, you’ll receive something called a criminal docketing statement. (A docket number is simply a code of numbers and letters that courts use to label and identify individual cases.) The docketing statement gets sent back to a clerk called the prothonotary, a title meaning “first scribe” commonly used in Pennsylvania’s court system.
Once all the briefs and paperwork been properly filed and processed, including exhibits and transcripts from the original trial, the oral arguments begin. Oftentimes these oral arguments are relatively short, and take place before a multi-judge panel which typically features three judges. These appellate judges can make one of three decisions: modify, affirm, or vacate.
Affirmation sounds positive, but the term is misleading, as affirmation effectively means the judges ruled against you by affirming the original court’s ruling. If the appellate judges vacate, it means they are vacating the original lower court’s ruling, i.e. ruling in your favor. However, that doesn’t mean that your charges are dismissed — only that you have earned the right to proceed with a new trial. The judges may decide to modify a judgment if they only partially support the original ruling.
Potential Outcomes of Losing or Winning an Appeal
Usually, appeals start at a mid-level appellate court. This means that even if you lose your appeal, there may be higher courts you can appeal to, such as the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania or even the federal court. In order to proceed from the state courts all the way to the federal court, the crime must have involved a violation on the federal level (i.e. breaking a federal, and not just Pennsylvania-based, law).
Even if you win, the charges against you may not necessarily be dropped. The prosecutor also has the right to appeal, and may seek out a higher court for a new ruling. Alternately, the prosecutor may offer the defendant a plea bargain, which is also called a plea agreement or a plea deal.
A plea bargain often means that the defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for receiving a sentence that would be lighter than what the defendant would otherwise receive. Alternately, the prosecutor might offer the defendant a chance to plead guilty to lesser charges (which in some cases means a low-level felony becoming a high-level misdemeanor), or to plead guilty to one charge in exchange for having other charges dismissed (if there are multiple charges involved).
Your attorney can help evaluate whether appeals is right for you. It can be tremendously important to try and appeal convictions of certain crimes which carry extremely harsh consequences, such as homicide, robbery, or sex offenses. A successful appeal can mean the difference between spending years in prison and getting back to your everyday life.
If you’ve been charged with a crime, you need a tough and experienced legal team on your side. For a free and private consultation, call the Bucks County criminal defense attorneys of Young, Marr & Associates at (609) 755-3115 in New Jersey or (215) 701-6519 in Pennsylvania today.