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The Appeals Process in Florida

Updated on June 15, 2016
Halscott Megaro PA
Halscott Megaro PA | Source

Generally, the losing party in a civil or criminal federal court has the right to appeal the decision to the United States Court of Appeals which is the next highest court . The appellate process consists of practices and rules which allow appellate courts to review trial court judgments. The appellate review performs numerous functions including developing the law, achieving uniformity across the courts, and correcting trial court errors. The appellate process focuses on several main themes such as how appeals are brought before the court, the requirements to reverse the lower court's decision, and what judgments can be appealed. Federal appellate courts are governed by the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, whereas the State appellate courts are governed by their own set of state rules.

Civil Cases

In civil case, either side may appeal the verdict within a civil case

Criminal Cases

The defendant is allowed to appeal his or her criminal conviction, and/or sentence. However, the government is not allowed to appeal a "not guilty" verdict but is allowed to appeal the sentence.

What is an Appellant?

The appellant is the losing party who files the appeal to the higher court. He or she is allowed up to thirty (30) days to file an appeal and must prove to the Court of Appeals that the trial court made a legal error that negatively impacted the decision of the case.

What is an Appellee?

The Appellee is the opposing party who defends against the appeal. He or she will use the same procedures as the appellant, except the appellee's argument within the brief will explain to the appeals court why the trial court's decision is correct and why the decision should remain the same.

The Process

Initially, the appellant must file a notice of appeal which will include a copy of the final lower court's decision, a brief stating the legal arguments, and why the decision is wrong and should be reversed or modified. Generally, the appellate lawyer will ignite this process for you. The body of the brief must explain the legal errors of the trial court and why the decision should be reversed. The appellant will also cite similar cases that will support his or her case within the brief. Once the Board of Appeals has received the notice of appeals, within ten (10) days a letter of acknowledgment, a copy of the appellate procedures, and advise on the next steps will be sent to the appellant. If the Board of Appeals does not meet the necessary conditions to file an appeal, or if more information is needed to make the determination, the Board will then notify both parties.

The Argument in the appellate court is almost always through written briefs. Few jurisdictions will allow for oral arguments. If an oral argument is selected for the case, it will be presented by lawyers from both parties. Each side will be given a short period of time to state their argument to the court. There will be a panel of three judges that will ask the lawyers questions, review the briefs, and original case. New evidence cannot be submitted. The judges panel will solely rule on existing case information and the written or oral brief. An appeal is not a new trial, yet it is an attempt to reverse a conviction or sentence handed down by the trial court. Third parties can also submit amicus curiae ("friend of the court") briefs that may influence an appellate court's decision.

A decision by the panel of judges will not occur immediately after the written or oral brief. Once the brief has concluded, the three-panel judge will each review the case then write a formal opinion of the court, which may be published in law books. If the vote is 2-1, the minority judge may choose to write a dissenting opinion stating his or her reasons for disagreeing. Writing this opinion may take up to several months. The court will then determine it's court of opinion which may either: (1) uphold or affirm the lower court's decision, therefore the verdict or sentence will remain the same, (2) reverse or overturn the lower court's decision, therefore granting the appellant's request, or (3) remand or send back the case to the trial court for a new trial or further action.

Common types of Legal Errors

Prejudicial Error - This type of error concern a mistake of the court or law procedures that caused substantial harm to the defendant. This type of error can include the judge making a mistake about the law, incorrect jury instructions, judge, jury, prosecution, or lawyer misconduct. To be accepted, the mistake must have harmed the defendant and he or she was given an unfair sentence based on prejudicial errors.

No Substantial Evidence - The appellant can ask the appellate court to determine if there was no substantial evidence that reasonably supported the trial court's decision.

Harmless Errors

A harmless error is a ruling by a trial judge that, although mistaken, does not meet the burden for a losing party to reverse the original decision of the trier of fact on appeal, or to warrant a new trial. harmless error is an error by a judge during the course of a trial which an appellate court finds does not justify the reversal or modification of the lower court's judgment at trial. Harmless errors may include a technical error which has no bearing on the outcome of the trial, or an error that was followed by a curative instruction (such as allowing testimony and then ordering it stricken and admonishing the jury to ignore it), and others. Often, an appeals court will find an error to be harmless because it is their determination that even though there were errors, the appealing party could not have won in the trial in any event. Harmless error is based upon a finding that the error was not significantly prejudicial to the appellant so as to affect the outcome of the case.

Normal Errors - The ordinary test for harmless error is whether the mistake in question affected the “substantial rights” of the defendant. If the error did not involve a constitutional right, the government must present a "fair assurance" that the error did not widely affect the verdict.

Constitutional Errors - Certain errors require that the prosecution unequivocally establishes “harmlessness.” If an error involves a constitutional right, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the error did not contribute to the guilty verdict.

Structural Errors - Rarely, errors such as structural errors will automatically require the appellate court to reverse the conviction. These errors include: depriving the defendant of legal representation, a biased trial judge presiding over the case, refusing to allow the defendant self-representation, denying the defendant the right to a public trial, or discriminatory exclusion of jurors based on being the same race as the defendant.

Harmful Sentencing Errors

Appellate courts respect the considerable discretion trial judges have during sentencing. However, a sentence can be appealed for harmful errors just as a conviction can be appealed for legal errors. An appeals court may modify or order the trial court to modify a sentence if harmful sentencing errors have occurred such as:

-the sentence being clearly excessive, compared to the charge

-enhanced because of facts the jury did not find true beyond a reasonable doubt,

-is based on invalid reasons such as a failed polygraph,

-were not followed by improper denial of a continuance, or

-was not preceded by a waiver of the right to legal representation.

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