The Criminal Appeals Process in Pennsylvania

Even though I have handled hundreds of criminal appeals and post-conviction matters, I cannot predict the path any particular case will take on appeal. Each case is different. The process below is a general description, but this isn’t legal advice for your case. It is always best to retain an experienced Pennsylvania criminal appeals lawyer to guide you through the appellate process and advocate on your behalf.

After an arrest, people accused of crimes are forced to navigate a confusing criminal justice system at the trial level. If convicted, a new process begins that does not resemble what happened in the trial court at all. An accomplished Pennsylvania appellate lawyer is in the best position to guide you or a loved one through what can be a complicated process.

In virtually all cases, an appeal cannot be taken until a defendant is sentenced. After sentencing, a notice of appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court must be filed within 30 days of sentencing.

It is not, however, appropriate to file a notice of appeal immediately after sentencing in every case. In certain cases, a post-sentence motion should be filed first. In order to make certain arguments on appeal – such as a challenge to the sentence imposed – the claim must first be presented to the trial court. This is often best accomplished with a post-sentence motion.

Such a motion must be filed within 10 days of being sentenced, after which the trial court has up to 120 days to make a decision on the motion. The motion is automatically denied if no decision is made by then. Following denial of a post-sentence motion, a notice of appeal must be filed within 30 days. 

The notice of appeal is filed in the trial court in which an individual was convicted. After that is filed, the trial court will often order the defendant’s attorney to file a document informing it of the issues that will be raised on appeal, generally within 21 days. This is called a “Statement of Errors Complained of on Appeal,” and is required by Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure 1925.

It then becomes the trial court’s responsibility to write an opinion addressing the reasons it ruled the way it did on the issues. This is known as a “Rule 1925 Opinion.”

Once the Superior Court of Pennsylvania is notified of the appeal, it will send a docketing statement to the Pennsylvania criminal appeals attorney or party who filed the notice of appeal. That document – which asks for general information about the case being appealed – must be completed and returned to the Superior Court.

After the trial court writes its opinion, the record is transmitted to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. It will order that the appellant file is brief and reproduced record within approximately 40 days of the order. This deadline can usually be extended if a motion requesting more time is filed.

The brief in an appeal is the party’s written arguments about why it is entitled to relief, whether that is a new trial, a new sentencing, or a complete release from custody. It is obviously the most important aspect of an appeal. Knowing how to write a persuasive brief is a skill that is learned over the course of time. Unfortunately, the quality of many lawyers’ written arguments is dreadful and they make little to no efforts to improve. Persuasive written arguments do not magically appear on the computer from a lawyer’s train of thought. A good brief requires multiple drafts and considered thought.

The reproduced record is a collection of the materials necessary for the appellate court to decide the case. Depending on what happened in the trial court and what issues are raised on appeal, what is required to be included in the reproduced record can vary significantly. But the penalty for not including important materials can be severe: Pennsylvania’s appellate courts often deny review of claims if the necessary documents are not in the record. With such important consequences, this is a task for an experienced Pennsylvania criminal appeals lawyer.

After the appellant’s brief is filed, the party that won in the lower court – known as the appellee, and usually the prosecution in criminal cases – has 30 days to file its brief. That deadline can also be extended by filing a motion. In that brief, the appellee argues why the lower court’s decision was correct.

The appellant is permitted to file a reply brief 14 days after service of the appellee’s brief. That purpose of that brief is to respond to arguments in the appellee’s briefs. Reply briefs are not always appropriate.

Oral argument takes place in some, but not all, cases. The appellant argues his case first. During argument, the lawyer starts to state why their position is correct but is usually interrupted with questions from the judges. The judges are testing the lawyer’s knowledge of the facts and the law, and looking for holes in his arguments. The appellee is second to argue. If the appellant “reserved time for rebuttal,” he is permitted to argue once again for a brief time.

The case is then submitted for consideration by a three-judge panel of the Superior Court. A decision can be a few days or many months away. There is no way to guess when the Superior Court will decide a particular case. The judges vote on the outcome, and the majority wins. One of the judges in the majority will write the decision, which is called the “Opinion of the Court.” This is the official decision.

The remaining two judges will either join in that opinion or write “concurring” or “dissenting” opinions. A “concurring opinion” is one that agrees with the outcome of the case, but the judge wishes to say something additional about the matter. A judge who writes a “dissenting opinion” disagrees with the outcome.

The party who loses an appeal in the Superior Court is permitted to request that a larger group of that Court’s judges review the case. This request must be made in a motion arguing why the panel’s decision was wrong. This is granted in rare cases and is called an en banc appeal. The procedure with the briefing process described above begins again.

The losing party is also able to ask the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review the case. Such a request must be filed within thirty days of the Superior Court’s most recent decision. As detailed elsewhere on this website, there is no right to review in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for the vast majority of cases. Instead, a petition asking the Court to hear your case must be filed. If the Court agrees to accept the case for review, the party seeking appeal files its brief first. The winning party from the Superior Court then files a responsive brief, after which the party seeking appeal may, in certain cases, file a reply brief.

Oral argument occurs in virtually all appeals to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Argument in that Court is different than in the Superior Court. Because the Supreme Court Justices hear fewer cases, they have more time to prepare for each case, and the questions they ask are more difficult to answer. 

Following argument, the Court issues an opinion. Like the Superior Court, the majority vote of the Justices carries the day, and there are often concurring and dissenting opinions.

If a criminal appeal is decided against you, it is important to hire an experienced Pennsylvania post-conviction relief attorney. The deadline to file a PCRA petition is one year from the date on which the appellate process ends. Exceptions exist under the PCRA for late filings, but those too must be filed within 60 days. Calculating deadlines under either circumstance can be complicated and any particular case requires attention to detail.

While this provides a brief description of the criminal appellate process in Pennsylvania, it is important to remember that each case is different and certain exceptions might apply. None of the above is legal advice for your particular case. It is a brief description of the general path of a criminal appeal.

Because each case is different, contacting a skilled Pennsylvania criminal appeals attorney is the best course of action to protect your rights. To schedule a consultation with an experienced appellate attorney in Pennsylvania, call (215) 731-9500 or contact us online.