The federal court system differs from the state court system in several ways. While there are some similarities, it's important to understand that each system operates under a different set of laws. For example, Pennsylvania statutes apply in Pennsylvania courts, while the United States Code applies in federal courts.
In the federal court system, district courts are the general trial courts. If you're charged with violating a federal criminal law, you'll most likely be tried in a federal district court first. There are certain exceptions; for instance, if the case involves violations of the Tax Code you could be prosecuted in federal tax court.
After a case is tried in the district courts, the losing side can appeal the decision to the appropriate federal circuit court. Pennsylvania falls under the jurisdiction of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, located in Philadelphia.
When an appeal to the federal circuit court fails, the next and final stop in the appeals process is at the United States Supreme Court.
Understanding the Basics of Federal Sentencing
Within the federal penal system, an individual convicted of federal criminal charges may be sentenced to probation or imprisonment. Much of the time probation is allowed for by law, however, about 25% of those convicted of a federal crime will be subject to a mandatory minimum sentence.
- “Approximately nine out of ten federal offenders receive sentences of imprisonment, while one out of ten is sentenced to probation (including probation with a condition of home detention or community confinement).”
- “The average prison sentence for federal offenders is 52 months.”
- “The average prison sentence for offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty is 110 months, while the average prison sentence for offenders convicted of an offense not carrying a mandatory minimum penalty is 28 months.”
If 25% of those convicted of a federal crime will receive a mandatory minimum sentence, and the average mandatory minimum penalty is 110 months, then it takes no stretch of the imagination to see that a significant number of people face federal imprisonment of nearly a decade. In severe cases, those convicted could receive a life sentence of federal imprisonment.
If you're facing the threat of a long-term or life-long federal prison sentence, you need to consider all of your options for appealing your sentence.
On What Grounds Can I Appeal My Federal Sentence?
Those convicted of a federal crime can appeal the judgment and/or the sentence. In some circumstances, the defendant won't disagree with the judgment of guilty but may argue that the sentence handed down is inappropriate or too harsh. Other times, the defendant may find that a finding of guilty is incorrect either based on the evidence or based on the judge's interpretation of the law.
An appeal of the district court's decision can encompass more than one assertion, but it's important for you to understand that the federal circuit court will not hear any new evidence on your criminal case. The federal appeals circuit courts will only decide on whether or not the lower court made an error in its judgment.
If the federal circuit appeals court finds that the lower district court did not err in its judgment, then you could appeal the circuit court's decision to the United States Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court doesn't have to hear your case, though, and it only selects cases for its docket on a very limited basis.
When Does the Appeals Process Start?
Procedurally, you have about two weeks to file your notice of intent to appeal your criminal case after a federal district court enters its final judgment. Sometimes, this timeline can be extended for good cause—like a global pandemic, for example.
That said, your appeals process truly starts the moment you're arrested. This may seem like an exaggeration, but in truth, an experienced federal criminal defense attorney understands that the facts and issues which help you win an appeal begin during the initial conviction process. Hopefully, you'll never need to raise these issues on appeal because you won't have to appeal your case. All too often, though, innocent or inappropriately sentenced individuals must appeal their case before they can receive justice.
The trial court process can be wrought with mistakes, oversights, and prejudices. Your defense attorney must always be on the lookout for these wrongs so that if/when you need to appeal the judgment, you are ready.
The Federal Appeals Process Steps
The federal appeals process is complicated, and there are difficult hurdles to overcome in succeeding. That said, appeals are often necessary and are an important tenant of the American justice system.
The basic steps of the federal appeals process include:
- The federal district court issues an unfavorable final judgment that is inappropriate in sentencing or application of the law
- The defendant's attorney files a Notice of Appeal within the required time period of the final judgment
- The defendant works with their attorney to develop an appeal strategy. This is done by performing an exhaustive review of the trial transcript, the evidence, and the application of the law in your case
- Your attorney files the Appellate Brief, which sets forth assertions that specific errors occurred at the district court level, either in the judgment or in the sentencing phase
When the federal appellate court reviews your Appellate Brief, it could make a determination to:
- Reverse the lower court's decision
- Change the sentence handed down by the lower court
- Order a new trial
There are many nuanced procedures in the federal criminal appeals process, and your appeal should be uniquely tailored to your situation and the facts of your case.
Writ of Habeas Corpus
The federal criminal appeals process may be lengthy, but the initial step of protecting yourself with an appeal happens lightning fast. If you fail to file the appropriate notice with the court within the short timeframe, you could miss out on an appeal opportunity entirely.
Those unfairly sentenced to inappropriately long prison terms or even life in federal prison, sometimes have other pathways to justice. Habeas Corpus (28 U.S.C. § 2241) is a Constitutional protection that allows federal courts to grant relief to prisoners already in custody.
Habeas Corpus is a last resort and can't be considered until all other options are exhausted.
How Long Will the Federal Appeal Process Take?
Appealing a criminal conviction or lengthy sentence in the federal court system can take multiple years on top of the district court proceedings you already endured. Much of this time can be attributed to how long it will take the federal appeals circuit court to get to your case. There's a long line of individuals appealing their own district court judgments.
Not only might the wait to have your appeal heard take a long time, but the appellate court may order your case to be retried at the district court level. Essentially, you'll need to go through the entire process again.
While this seemingly endless wait can be discouraging, it's important to remember what's at stake. Those facing long prison terms or life in prison should absolutely do everything within their power to reduce their federal prison sentence. After all, a few years spent fighting an unjust prison sentence pales in comparison to a life behind bars.
What Happens If My Federal Appeal is Denied?
There are a variety of outcomes when you appeal a judgment or sentence handed down by a federal district court. The appellate court might outright deny your appeal, but other times it could send your case back to the district court with specific instructions or the requirement that your case be tried all over again. Sometimes the appellate court will alter the terms of your sentence, but you might still find the new terms to be unjust.
If your case is handed back down to the district court for a new trial or with the instructions that the district court judge act in a specific way with regard to the law, then you'll need to go through that process.
If/when you finally reach a dead-end in the federal appeals process at the district court and circuit court level, then in rare circumstances, you could petition the United States Supreme Court.
Speak to a Federal Criminal Sentence Appeals Attorney
The federal appeals process for criminal convictions and sentences is complicated and lengthy. You should hire a knowledgeable attorney who will work tirelessly to secure justice for you. Attorney Joseph D. Lento understands that your freedom is at stake when you're facing lengthy federal prison sentences. He, along with his dedicated team at the Lento Law Firm, will aggressively pursue an appeal of the lower court's decision in your criminal case. All too often, we must fight for justice within our country's penal system, and Mr. Lento isn't afraid of that fight. To learn how Joseph D. Lento can help you today, call 888-535-3686.