Federal Criminal Appeals

Federal criminal cases all start in one of the federal “districts”, which are found in each of the 50 states, in Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and in many overseas territories, such as Guam or the American Virgin Islands. Although we take cases all around the country, much of our work is done in Georgia, Alabama or Florida. Each of these states has three separate “districts” where federal criminal cases can start. For example, a federal criminal case in Georgia might begin in the Northern District (here in Atlanta), the Middle District (which includes Macon, Athens, Columbus and Albany), or the Southern District (which encompasses a huge area including Savannah, Augusta, Statesboro, Valdosta and Waycross).

If a Defendant has been convicted in one of the federal District Courts, he or she has the absolute right (with some exceptions explained below) to appeal his or her case to one of the eleven Federal Courts of Appeals. For example, all of the cases that come out of a Federal District Court in either Georgia, Alabama or Florida always goes to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which has its home offices just down the street from our location here in Atlanta.

An appeal is a way to challenge what happened in the District Court. For example, many times we file “pretrial motions” to help our client’s cases. If the Judge denies that Motion, and if the client is later found guilty at a trial, we might argue that the Judge made a legal error when denying our pretrial motion. Other times, we might appeal when the Judge either admits objectionable evidence, or prevents us from using clearly admissible information to prove our client’s case. There are many types of possible legal errors that could be grounds for an appeal. Especially creative attorneys come up with new arguments all the time, leaving judges and other lawyers scratching their heads and wondering why they did not think of that particular attack.

Federal Criminal Appeals are extremely technical, time-consuming and difficult. The federal appellate courts have specific and detailed requirements for filing a “brief”, and many attorneys refuse to do such a case because of the complexity of these requirements. Additionally, a Defendant contemplating a federal criminal appeal needs to hire an attorney who has the ability and experience to handle the lengthy process of assessing the “record” of the case. The record consists of all the legal materials filed in the District Court, all the transcripts of the various legal proceedings (like pretrial hearings, the trial itself, or a sentencing hearing), and any rulings in the District Court. Once the attorney has reviewed all these materials, he or she needs to be very well acquainted with substantive federal criminal law, in order to know and assess whether the Defendant has a good issue to raise on appeal.

As mentioned previously, every Defendant has the right to appeal, but there are some very important exceptions. For example, when the judge denies a pretrial motion filed by the defense attorney, that Defendant cannot appeal the denial of that motion if the Defendant later pleads guilty. Another important roadblock to an appeal often arises in the context of challenging issues related to the sentence imposed by the judge. Under the federal criminal system, judges must first consider the wickedly complex Federal Sentencing Guidelines. If the Defendant and his or her lawyer feel the judge made an error during the sentencing process, there is a right to appeal those rulings to the Court of Appeals. However, when a Defendant enters into a Plea Agreement, most federal prosecutors require that the Defendant waive, or give up, the right to appeal any sentencing issues. Defendants need to fully understand and have a thorough conversation with their lawyer about how these “appeal waivers” operate. Many times, it is more valuable to keep the right to appeal in case the judge makes a very bad sentencing ruling.

Once the briefs are filed in a federal criminal appeal, the case can go in one of two directions in the Court of Appeals. On the one hand, the judges might simply make their decision based on the written arguments contained in the briefs filed by each side. However, in some cases the Court of Appeals will have what we call an “oral argument.” This means that the attorneys will present their points and arguments to a group of three judges, which is called “the Panel.” These oral arguments are often the career highlight for some attorneys. Whether the Panel decides the case based on the written briefs or after oral argument, there is a very rare proceeding in which the case can then be heard en banc. This means that instead of three judges, all of the active sitting judges on that particular court of appeals will convene in one massive group to hear a case. Arguing a case en banc is exceedingly rare; here at Kish and Lietz we have done so several times.

As many people know, the United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. The side that loses in the Court of Appeals can ask that the Supreme Court hear a case. The process is that the party seeking review files what is called a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari. The Supreme Court is asked to review thousands of cases each year, and only a handful are accepted.

The appellate process is extremely complex in federal court. Paul Kish and Carl Lietz have handled hundreds of federal criminal appeals and have obtained significant relief for many clients. Our experience will guide you or your family member through the process of appealing his or her criminal case. Feel free to call us today at (404) 588-3991, or contact us online to schedule an appointment for a consultation. If you have an appeal, feel free to call us today at (404) 588-3991, or contact us online to schedule an appointment for a consultation. Our experience will guide you and your family through the complex process of appealing a matter in either state or federal court.