Court System Structure
Just because you have been convicted at trial, it doesn’t mean the conviction is final. You have the right to review by an appellate court. In Florida, five District Courts review Appeals from the twenty circuit courts (trial courts). In Federal Court, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reviews appeals from the Southern, Middle and Northern Districts of Florida.
Most appellate cases come from these intermediary Courts of Appeal; however, the Florida, and United States Supreme Courts sit above them. Review by a Supreme Court is hard to achieve as they receive more Petitions than they could possibly handle.
Who Can Appeal What?
Fortunately, all people convicted at trial have a guaranteed right to Appeal. But you can’t wait forever to file your Notice of Appeal. Generally, you must file within 30 days of rendition of the order to have your case reviewed.
Even though you might have the right to file an Appeal, you don’t have the right to challenge every ruling at any time. For instance, if the trial court denies your motion to suppress, you can’t file an Appeal at that moment. You must wait until after the court enters the final judgment.
Some people don’t have the right to an Appeal. If you don’t reserve the right to Appeal, you can only Appeal a few limited matters. If you lose at trial, plea open to the court or negotiate a sentence reserving your right to Appeal, you can raise a greater variety of issues.
Even if you have the right to Appeal, you may not have the ability to Appeal every error. Part of being a good trial lawyer is being a good appellate lawyer. Your trial lawyer must object properly to preserve errors for Appeal. Unpreserved errors must constitute fundamental error to warrant reversal. Courts rarely, rarely, rarely reverse convictions over fundamental error. Therefore, your trial lawyer better object, file motions and raise issues or the right to Appeal won’t matter even with the best appellate lawyer.
Check out my blog post on fundamental error when an attorney fails to object to Due Process issues during a Zoom sentencing.
What Happens During an Appeal?
State and federal appeals follow the same structure. First, the Appellant files an Initial Brief, which outlines its legal objections to the ruling by the lower court or agency. Next, the Appellee files an Answer Brief, which supports its position in response. Then, the Appellant may file a short Reply Brief, which addresses the arguments raised in the Answer Brief. Rarely, the court grants the parties Oral Argument, which allows the parties the chance to answer the court’s questions about their briefs and the record.
When handling an Appeal, courts only consider the Record. The Record consists of the docket, evidence, transcripts, orders and filings. Typically, the Appellant and/or Clerks of Court provides this material. However, the Appellee may add evidence to the Record that the Appellant omitted.
The courts analyze types of legal issues differently. They view issues through different Standards of Review, which vary in deference to the courts below. For example, courts review evidentiary rulings on the Abuse of Discretion standard. This standard strongly defers to the lower court as the finder of fact. It’s tough to win reversal on issues with this Standard of Review. Courts review legal conclusions regarding statutes de novo, meaning they put themselves in the same position as the lower court. It’s a much more favorable standard for the Appellant if you lose a Motion to Dismiss on a legal issue.
Result of the Appeal
During an Appeal, a panel of three judges considers the filings by both parties to determine the proper outcome. Some serious matters include all members of the court, resulting in en banc opinions. The majority rules, so majority opinions decide the legal dispute. Judges in the majority who don’t author the majority opinion may issue a concurring opinion, which outlines their legal reasoning. Judges on the opposite side of the majority may author dissenting opinions.
The majority decision creates binding precedent for the courts below it. For example, the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Florida handles Appeals from courts in Broward, Palm Beach, St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River and Okeechobee Counties. Its opinions also bind other Florida counties unless their appellate courts rule differently than the Fourth District. Neither concurring nor dissenting opinions bind courts.
Not all Appeals result in binding written opinions. In Federal Court, only published opinions count as binding law. Unpublished opinions resolve the Appeal, but do not bind other cases. Most Appeals don’t even make it this far. Courts issue Per Curiam Affirmances (PCAs) to uphold the ruling of the court or agency below, without writing lengthy opinions. A PCA ends the life of an Appeal.
Petitions or Extraordinary Writs
In some situations, you can file Petitions, also known as Extraordinary Writs, instead of Appeals. Extraordinary Writs allow you to tell somebody what to do or challenge court rulings before final judgment. Florida authorizes five sorts of Extraordinary Writs: Certiorari, Prohibition, Mandamus, Quo Warranto and Habeas Corpus.
Writs of Certiorari make up the most commonly filed Petitions. People file them to appear before the Supreme Court. They allow courts to review decisions by government agencies, like when your license gets suspended. Writs of Certiorari also allow appellate courts to review orders that will cause material injury for which there is no adequate remedy by Appeal. If a judge orders you to give an Assistant State Attorney your cellphone password, you can file a Writ of Certiorari to challenge that order. Check out my blog post addressing refusing to share your cellphone password and asking for a Writ of Certiorari to rule on competence.
Writs of Prohibition let appellate courts stop trial courts from exercising jurisdiction. They’re filed when a judge denies a motion to disqualify or if the court denies certain motions to dismiss. Writs of Mandamus make government agents perform mandatory acts which they have failed to perform. They may be filed if a judge fails to rule on a motion. Writs of Quo Warranto prevent people from taking action, like challenging a claim to hold public office. These happen infrequently.
Writs of Habeas Corpus help people obtain release from custody. In Florida, Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850 swallows most Writs of Habeas Corpus. Learn more about Rule 3.850 in my Post Conviction Relief page. Florida defendants can file a Federal Habeas petition if they raise violations of the U.S. Constitution and Federal law.
Talk to an Experienced Florida Criminal Defense Attorney!
Appeals aren’t the type of matters that every lawyer can properly handle. They’re very nuanced and require someone who can persuasively convey your point using the written word. Fortunately, Mr. Brown has filed appeals in State Court, Federal Court and has even argued an appeal before the Florida Supreme Court.
The criminal defense firm Brown Legal PLLC operates from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but regularly handles cases throughout South Florida and the rest of the state. Before it’s too late, talk to an appellate attorney to see if he can help you Appeal your conviction! Reach out over the phone at (954) 524-6700 or through the Contact Page if you have any questions.