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Understanding Criminal Law: The Role of Appeals in Criminal Law

August 17, 2023 | Posted In Criminal Law

There are no guarantees in a criminal trial. Regardless of the facts, evidence, and whether you choose a jury trial or bench trial, it is impossible to predict how your case will go. While your New Jersey criminal lawyer may have a general idea of how things are likely to play out in court, the outcome of your trial is ultimately beyond your—and your lawyer’s—control.

This is where the appellate system comes into play. If you take your criminal case to court and receive an unjust outcome, you have the right to file an appeal. Appellate courts review errors at the trial level, and they exist to ensure that unjust convictions and sentences do not stand. As a criminal defendant in New Jersey (or as someone who has been recently convicted), it is important to have a basic understanding of the appellate process so that you know what to do if things don’t go your way.

What is an Appeal in a New Jersey Criminal Case?

In a criminal case, an appeal is a request for a review of your conviction or sentence. Appeals can also be used to challenge pre-verdict orders (or “interlocutory” orders) in some cases. When you file an appeal, you file with a different court than the one that handled your trial. In state criminal cases, these are the courts in New Jersey’s Appellate Division. In federal criminal cases, these are the U.S. Courts of Appeal.

When Can You Appeal a Criminal Conviction in New Jersey?

There are several potential grounds to appeal a criminal conviction in New Jersey. The grounds you have available (if any) will depend on the specific circumstances of your case.

It is important to understand that an appeal is not a “do over” of your criminal trial. The trial process and the appellate process are very different. When you file an appeal, you are not asking the appellate court to determine your guilt or innocence. Instead, you are asking the appellate court to give you another chance based on an error during trial.

With this in mind, some examples of potential grounds to appeal a criminal conviction include:

  • Failure to provide the correct instructions to the jury
  • New evidence that has come to light
  • Improper denial of a pretrial motion
  • Improperly admitting or excluding material evidence  
  • Prosecutorial misconduct

Again, these are just examples. When you hire a lawyer to represent you on appeal, your lawyer will carefully examine all potential grounds and help you decide how (and if) to move forward.

When Can You Appeal a Criminal Sentence in New Jersey?

In addition to challenging a criminal conviction, it is also possible to challenge a criminal sentence on appeal. If your conviction is likely to stand, but your sentence is excessive, unreasonable or unconstitutional, then appealing your sentence may be your best option. Along with the grounds listed above (among others), criminal sentences can also be challenged based on the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

How Long Do You Have to File a Criminal Appeal?

Criminal appeals are subject to strict time limits. If you wait too long, you can lose your right to file an appeal—even if your conviction or sentence was clearly improper. For example, the standard deadlines for appealing a criminal conviction in New Jersey are:

  • State Indictable Crimes – 45 Days from the date of conviction
  • State Disorderly Persons Offenses – 20 days from the date of conviction
  • Federal Crimes – 14 days from the date of conviction

Given these short deadlines, if you are thinking about appealing your conviction or sentence, you should speak with a New Jersey criminal lawyer as soon as possible.

What Happens During a Criminal Appeal in New Jersey?

As mentioned above, an appeal is not a “do over.” In other words, it is not simply another trial focused on the underlying facts of your case. Instead, when your lawyer files your appeal, your lawyer will present written arguments (in a “brief”) explaining why the outcome of your trial was unjust. Your lawyer may or may not have the opportunity to present an oral argument as well. Of course, the government will have the opportunity to challenge your appeal, and the justices in the appellate court will consider both sides’ arguments in deciding how to rule.

What Happens if You Win Your Criminal Appeal?

If you win your criminal appeal, this can have two primary outcomes—either: (i) the appellate court can reverse the trial court’s decision, or (ii) the appellate court can remand your case for further proceedings. If the appellate court reverses your conviction or sentence, the government will generally have the opportunity to try your case again—and it may or may not do so, depending on the reason for the reversal and various other factors. If the appellate court remands your case, then it will go back to trial for further proceedings consistent with the appellate court’s ruling.

What Happens if You Lose Your Criminal Appeal?

If you lose your criminal appeal, the appellate court will “affirm” your conviction or sentence. In this scenario, you will need to work with your New Jersey criminal lawyer to decide if it makes sense to go to the next level in the appellate system.

Do You Need a New Jersey Criminal Lawyer to File an Appeal?

While individuals aren’t required to hire a lawyer to handle their criminal appeals, it is strongly in your best interests to hire a lawyer to represent you. Filing a successful appeal is not easy, and there are lots of intricate steps involved. Filing a successful appeal also requires in-depth knowledge of the applicable court rules, statutes and precedent, and it requires the ability to present persuasive written and oral arguments based on the governing legal principles.

Discuss Your Case with a New Jersey Criminal Lawyer in Confidence

If you have questions about filing a criminal appeal in New Jersey, we invite you to contact us for more information. To discuss your case with an experienced New Jersey criminal lawyer in confidence, please call 877-435-6371 or send us a message online today.

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