Basis for Criminal Appeals

Introduction to Basis for Criminal Appeals

The criminal justice system is comprised of multiple levels of courts, just like the civil division of the United States criminal justice system. The trial level is the first court that hears a case, but there are options to appeal that decision to a higher court. In criminal defense, the appellate process can be the difference between an individual’s freedom and incarceration. While there is an institutional preference to uphold a trial court’s ruling, there are a number of ways that the higher court can overturn the trial courts ruling. In order for an appellate court to overturn a lower courts decision, there must have been an error made at the trial courts level; but not just any error. The error must be substantial, or material basis for criminal appeals.i

Harmless Error

Harmless errors are not grounds for reversing the judgment of a lower court.ii A harmless error is an error that is unlikely to make a substantial impact on the result at trial.iii Any error, defect, irregularly, or variance, which does not affect a defendant, or a litigant’s substantial rights, shall be disregarded as a harmless error and may not be basis for criminal appeals.iv

The Four Basic Grounds for Appeal

Now, if there was more than just a harmless error at the trial court’s level, overturning the decision may be appropriate. There are four general instances where an appeal may be appropriate. Those basis for criminal appeals include:

  • The lower court made a serious error of law (plain error);
  • The weight of the evidence does not support the verdict;
  • The lower court abused its discretion in making an errant ruling; or
  • The claim of Ineffective Assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment.v

Plain Error

Plain error is different than the harmless error, and can be defined as an error or defect that affects the defendant’s substantial rights.vi A plain error can still exist, and be grounds for an appeal, even if the parties did not bring this error to the judge’s attention during trial. Plain errors can create a basis for criminal appeals against a criminal conviction, as well as overturning a wide variety of other court verdicts.vii

A common example of a plain error is when the judge miscalculates sentences after the conviction.viii A miscalculation is a plain error, definitely not harmless, and often leads the case to an appellate level to determine that going back to the trial level for the judge to resentence the defendant in light of their plain error in sentencing the first time around.

Insufficient Weight Given to the Evidence

It is a difficult task to prove that the trial court did not give enough weight to a particular piece of evidence when the judge or jury made their decision. The reason for this is because determining how much weight the fact finder gave is inherently trying to determine what was going on in that person’s mind at the time they made their decision. Trial court judges have a lot of discretion when making their decision, so to question their decision at a fundamental level like this, is a difficult hurdle to overcome.

If the appellate court is going to hear an appeal based on insufficient evidence to support the verdict, there is still a limit as to what the appellate court can actually review.ix The appellate court has the ability to review transcripts of the trials, but they will almost never hear actual witness testimony, view the presentation of evidence, or hear parties’ opening and closing statements.x Often times the appellate court is not in the best position to assess whether the trial court gave proper weight to the evidence, because they have limitations on what they can actually review. The appellate court is not in place so the parties can re-litigate the issue at the higher level, it is not a “do over” for the appellant.

Abuse of Discretion

Abuse of discretion, while grounds for an appeal, is a hard ground to actually prove to the appellate court. As stated previously, the trial court has a lot of discretion when making its decision, so to try and overturn a decision because the court abused its discretion is a big mountain to climb for the appellant. Judges are given a wide range of discretion in all areas of court, civil and criminal, but that range is not unlimited. Defining what the boundaries are can be a challenge, but it is not unheard of. In order to find that there was an abuse of discretion, the appellate court must find that the ruling rendered at the trial level was; clearly unreasonable, erroneous, or arbitrary and not supported by the facts or law in the case.xi

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

basis for criminal appealsIneffective assistance of counsel is grounds for an appeal, and it generally does not have anything to do with the judge’s actual decision. Under the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which has been incorporated to all of the states through the Fourteen Amendment, defendants have a right to adequate representation and to a fair trial.xii If either of these are violated, it could be grounds for an appeal.

In order to prove that there was ineffective assistance of counsel, the appellant has to prove that the attorney did more than just not represent the appellant in the manner they thought was appropriate.xiiiThe appellate court is also not going to look at just the actions of the attorney. The attorney could have slept through the trial, or made a bad opening statement, but if the appellate court determines that the attorney’s poor actions did not have a material consequence on the trial court’s decision, then the appeal will not be granted for ineffective assistance of counsel. The attorney’s actions must have an actual bearing on the decision itself, and without those actions, the decision would have turned out differently.

Conclusion to Basis for Criminal Appeals

When it comes to appeals in the criminal justice system, there has to be strict grounds for an appeal or everyone who did not like their verdict would appeal. The criminal justice system is already clogged enough, so reasons for an appeal must be well founded and fall generally into the categories listed above. The same goes for civil appeals, which can be more difficult to get to the appellate process than criminal appeals in some ways. Once a case gets to the appellate level, the appellate court is not going to make a new decision for the trial court. The appellate court will review the trial court’s decision and determine if the trial court needs to hear all or some of the issues over again. If the appellate court finds the trial court needs to rehear the issues, the case will be bumped back down to the trial level and will begin from the beginning.


i See The Basis for Criminal Appeals NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed July 3, 2017) http://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-procedure/the-basis-for-a-criminal-appeal.html

ii Id.

iii Id.

iv Id.

v Id.

vi Id.

vii Id.

viii See The Basis for Criminal Appeals NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed July 3, 2017) http://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-procedure/the-basis-for-a-criminal-appeal.html

ix Id.

x Id.

xi Id.

xii Id.

xiii Id.