The chances of winning a criminal appeal in California are low. Only about 20 percent of criminal appeals are successful. But the odds of success are much greater if there were errors of law and procedure at trial significant enough to have affected the outcome of the case.
A guilty verdict and conviction in court is not necessarily the end of the road.
California’s appellate process allows you to appeal a criminal conviction or trial court decision. Sometimes this can open the door for a new trial and a second chance at acquittal.
But what are the chances of winning a California criminal appeal?
Obviously, of course, much depends on the facts and circumstances of the case. But a lot, too, rides on the skill and strategy of the attorney handling the appeal.
In the article below, our appellate lawyers1 will discuss the factors that can increase the odds of a successful appeal…
How does the criminal appeals process work in California?
Let’s start off by explaining some of the basics. Your conviction will not be overturned simply because you claim that
- you were unfairly convicted,
- the judge or jury had it in for you,
- the evidence against you was bogus, or
- you are innocent.
Your conviction will only be overturned if you can prove that a legal error occurred during (or prior to) the trial proceedings and the error contributed to an unjust conviction and/or sentence.
This is because an appeal is not a new trial or retrial of the case. An appeal is a request for a higher court (that is, an appellate court) to review a decision of a lower court (that is, the Superior Court, frequently referred to as the trial court). This means that the appellate court will not evaluate new evidence or determine whether or not you are guilty or innocent.
The only job of the appellate court is to decide (1) whether the trial court made a legal error and (2) if so, whether the result may have been different had the error not occurred.
So what are the types of legal errors that the appellate court will review?
What are the grounds on which to appeal a criminal conviction
The specific grounds on which you can appeal a California conviction vary case-by-case. But regardless of the facts of your particular case, the grounds must be based on a legal error as opposed to a factual error.
The attorneys, judge, or jury make a legal error when their mistake goes against California law. Examples of legal errors include (but are not limited to):
- a judge permitting the jury to hear evidence that never should have been admitted,
- a prosecutor acting unethically, and
- a jury considering facts outside of the evidence to reach its verdict.
By contrast, the appeals court generally will not “second guess” a judge or jury regarding factual determinations such as:
- witness credibility,
- whether to believe one witness over another, or
- the value of a particular piece of evidence.
It bears repeating that even if the appellate court concludes that the trial court did commit a legal error, that legal error alone is not enough to justify a reversal.
The legal error must have been “prejudicial.” “Prejudicial” is a technical legal term that basically means that the legal error probably made a difference in the outcome of your case.
So how does a good appeals lawyer convince the appellate court that a legal error occurred…and that it was in fact prejudicial?
How can I increase my odds of success?
First, your attorney knows California’s appellate law and how the system works. Just as you wouldn’t turn to a family doctor to perform heart surgery, you shouldn’t turn to a trial lawyer or a general practitioner for a criminal appeal.
As California criminal appeals lawyer John Murray2 explains, “The laws that govern California appeals differ significantly from those that govern trials. An attorney who tries to appeal a case without an intricate understanding of those differences will surely jeopardize his/her client’s chances of success.”
This knowledge includes having a thorough understanding of how to appeal a California criminal conviction. There are specific rules that dictate exactly how an appeal must be filed. These rules govern everything from the presentation of the written arguments (known as “briefs”) to the timeframes and deadlines by which you must submit your California appeal.3
It also includes knowing where to file the appeal. You file California misdemeanor appeals with the “Appellate Division of the Superior Court” and file California felony appeals with the California Court of Appeal. And if your original case was a federal case, you file your appeal with the United States Court of Appeals.4
Second, your attorney must know how to comb through the trial court records and be able to recognize the types of prejudicial errors that appellate courts will find most compelling. He/she should have mastered the art of framing the appellate issues a way that leaves the appeals court with no choice but to overturn your conviction.
Third, your lawyer must know how to seek further avenues of recourse should the appeals court side against you. If your initial appeal is “affirmed” (which means that the trial court’s proceedings remain intact) you may appeal it further to an even higher court. If your case is a California state case, you file this appeal with the Supreme Court of California. If your case is a federal case, you file this appeal with the United States Supreme Court.
The California Supreme Court will only accept certain cases.and only if those cases are properly filed within the designated timeframes.5 This is why having an attorney who is well-versed with California’s appeal laws is critical. Failure to abide by these rules will result in an automatic rejection of your case.
The bottom line is that your chances of overturning your California criminal conviction are only as good as your appellate attorney. Even if you have a strong case, the failure to present your appeal in a timely fashion or in a convincing manner will undoubtedly hinder your chances.
If you or loved one is in need of help with appeals and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact our criminal appellate lawyers at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.
1 Our California criminal appellate attorneys have local Los Angeles law offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina, and Whittier. We have additional law offices conveniently located throughout the state in Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities. We invite you to contact us to help improve your chances of overturning your California conviction.
2 California appellate lawyer John Murray represents clients seeking appeals in the South Bay (including Long Beach and Torrance) as well as throughout Orange County, including Newport Beach, Santa Ana, Fullerton, Laguna Beach, Irvine, Anaheim and Westminster.
3 The rules for California appeals are set forth in California Rules of Court Title 8.
4 California Penal Code 1466 – Judgments and orders; appealable. (“An appeal may be taken from a judgment or order, in an infraction or misdemeanor case, to the appellate division of the superior court of the county in which the court from which the appeal is taken is located, in the following cases: (1) By the people: (A) From an order recusing the district attorney or city attorney pursuant to Section 1424. (B) From an order or judgment dismissing or otherwise terminating all or any portion of the action, including such an order or judgment, entered after a verdict or finding of guilty or a verdict or judgment entered before the defendant has been placed in jeopardy or where the defendant has waived jeopardy. (C) From sustaining a demurrer to any portion of the complaint or pleading. (D) From an order granting a new trial. (E) From an order arresting judgment. (F) From any order made after judgment affecting the substantial rights of the people. (G) From the imposition of an unlawful sentence, whether or not the court suspends the execution of sentence. As used in this subparagraph, “unlawful sentence” means the imposition of a sentence not authorized by law or the imposition of a sentence based upon an unlawful order of the court that strikes or otherwise modifies the effect of an enhancement or prior conviction. A defendant shall have the right to counsel in the people’s appeal of an unlawful sentence under the same circumstances that he or she would have a right to counsel under subdivision (a) of Section 1238. (H) Nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize an appeal from an order granting probation. Instead, the people may seek appellate review of any grant of probation, whether or not the court imposes sentence, by means of a petition for a writ of mandate or prohibition that is filed within 60 days after probation is granted. The review of any grant of probation shall include review of any order underlying the grant of probation. (2) By the defendant: (A) From a final judgment of conviction. A sentence, an order granting probation, a conviction in a case in which before final judgment the defendant is committed for insanity or is given an indeterminate commitment as a mentally disordered sex offender, or the conviction of a defendant committed for controlled substance addiction shall be deemed to be a final judgment within the meaning of this section. Upon appeal from a final judgment or an order granting probation the court may review any order denying a motion for a new trial. (B) From any order made after judgment affecting his or her substantial rights.” As long as your appeal complies with these requirements, it increases your chances of overturning your California conviction.)
See also California Penal Code 1235, subdivision (b) — Questions of law alone; appeal by either party; application of title. (“(a) Either party to a felony case may appeal on questions of law alone, as prescribed in this title and in rules adopted by the Judicial Council. The provisions of this title apply only to such appeals. (b) An appeal from the judgment or appealable order in a felony case is to the court of appeal for the district in which the court from which the appeal is taken is located.”)
Federal courts have jurisdiction over federal crimes.
5 California Rules of Court, Division 1, Chapter 9, Rule 8.500 — Petition for review. (“(a) Right to file a petition, answer, or reply. (1) A party may file a petition in the Supreme Court for review of any decision of the Court of Appeal, including any interlocutory order, except the denial of a transfer of a case within the appellate jurisdiction of the superior court. (2) A party may file an answer responding to the issues raised in the petition. In the answer, the party may ask the court to address additional issues if it grants review. (3) The petitioner may file a reply to the answer. (b) Grounds for review. The Supreme Court may order review of a Court of Appeal decision: (1) When necessary to secure uniformity of decision or to settle an important question of law; (2) When the Court of Appeal lacked jurisdiction; (3) When the Court of Appeal decision lacked the concurrence of sufficient qualified justices; or (4) For the purpose of transferring the matter to the Court of Appeal for such proceedings as the Supreme Court may order. [Ensuring your appeal complies with these requirements will increase your chances of overturning a California conviction.] (c) Limits of review. (1) As a policy matter, on petition for review the Supreme Court normally will not consider an issue that the petitioner failed to timely raise in the Court of Appeal. (2) A party may petition for review without petitioning for rehearing in the Court of Appeal, but as a policy matter the Supreme Court normally will accept the Court of Appeal opinion’s statement of the issues and facts unless the party has called the Court of Appeal’s attention to any alleged omission or misstatement of an issue or fact in a petition for rehearing. (d) Petitions in nonconsolidated proceedings. If the Court of Appeal decides an appeal and denies a related petition for writ of habeas corpus without issuing an order to show cause and without formally consolidating the two proceedings, a party seeking review of both decisions must file a separate petition for review in each proceeding. (e) Time to serve and file. (1) A petition for review must be served and filed within 10 days after the Court of Appeal decision is final in that court. For purposes of this rule, the date of finality is not extended if it falls on a day on which the clerk’s office is closed. (2) The time to file a petition for review may not be extended, but the Chief Justice may relieve a party from a failure to file a timely petition for review if the time for the court to order review on its own motion has not expired. (3) If a petition for review is presented for filing before the Court of Appeal decision is final in that court, the Supreme Court clerk must accept it and file it on the day after finality. (4) Any answer to the petition must be served and filed within 20 days after the petition is filed. (5) Any reply to the answer must be served and filed within 10 days after the answer is filed. (f) Additional requirements. (1) The petition must also be served on the superior court clerk and the Court of Appeal clerk. (2) A copy of each brief must be served on a public officer or agency when required by statute or by rule 8.29. (3) The Supreme Court clerk must file the petition even if its proof of service is defective, but if the petitioner fails to file a corrected proof of service within 5 days after the clerk gives notice of the defect the court may strike the petition or impose a lesser sanction. (g) Amicus curiae letters. (1) Any person or entity wanting to support or oppose a petition for review or for an original writ must serve on all parties and send to the Supreme Court an amicus curiae letter rather than a brief. (2) The letter must describe the interest of the amicus curiae. Any matter attached to the letter or incorporated by reference must comply with rule 8.504(e). (3) Receipt of the letter does not constitute leave to file an amicus curiae brief on the merits under rule 8.520(f).”)