The Type of Claims That Can Be Raised on Appeal

An appeal is not an opportunity to challenge a jury’s decision. You might think that the jury should have made a different verdict. You may very well be right. But the fastest way to lose virtually any appeal is to only argue that the jury came to the wrong verdict.

Who and what to believe are choices that are left to juries (or judges in waiver trials). If you are meeting with lawyers and they are telling you that you can challenge the believability of witnesses in your appeal, or that the jury reached the wrong verdict, you are likely meeting with the wrong lawyers.

An appeal is a challenge to specific legal decisions that were made in the lower court. It is almost always the responsibility of the defendant – or “appellant” – to establish that an error occurred in the lower court. A seasoned Pennsylvania criminal appeals lawyer can help make that process easier.   

Claims of legal error when appealing a conviction might include the following:

  • Suppression of Evidence: if you litigated a motion to suppress evidence that the trial judge denied, an appellate court can review that ruling. Claims that evidence was improperly seized can be litigated under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
  • Suppression of a Statement: similarly, if the trial judge denied a motion to suppress a statement you made to police, that claim is subject to review on appeal. The famous United States Supreme Court decision in Miranda v. Arizona lays out certain circumstances in which it is appropriate to prevent a jury from hearing about a defendant’s statement.
  • Incorrect Evidentiary Rulings: the Rules of Evidence and prior decisions by appellate courts determine whether evidence can be introduced in court. Those rules and decisions specify when and under what circumstances evidence is admissible. Challenges to rulings on evidence are common on appeal.
  • Sufficiency of Evidence: this is a claim that the prosecution did not prove a certain issue required for conviction. For example, if you are charged with possessing drugs with the intent to deliver, but the prosecution only proved that you possessed drugs (not that you sold them or intended to sell them), you would argue on appeal that the evidence was insufficient. 
  • Excessive Sentence: while lower courts have broad discretion in determining sentences, they do not have complete discretion. Certain factors must be considered prior to sentence being imposed, and sentences cannot be imposed based solely on the crime committed.
  • Claims of Prosecutorial Misconduct: a prosecutor’s responsibility is to seek justice, not to obtain a conviction by any means. Rules exist to govern a prosecutor’s conduct before and during trial, and when those rules are broken, appellate relief may be available.

The above are only examples of the types of claims that can be raised on appeal. There is no way to make a complete list of such claims.

If a claim is successful on appeal, the type of relief available depends on the claim. If the successful claim on appeal is based on the sufficiency of the evidence, you are entitled to a reversal of that conviction – and it is possible that the government would not be allowed to retry you on the charge due to double jeopardy. If you establish that your sentence was excessive, you receive a new sentencing hearing. The majority of successful appellate claims – such as those challenging suppression claims and the admission of evidence – result in a new trial being granted.

Generally, an appellate court can only review a claim that was brought to the attention of the lower court. This is known as a “preserved” claim. Claims can be preserved in a variety of ways, including by filing a motion and making a timely objection. If a claim was not presented to the lower court, there is no decision to appeal. 

The choice of which claims to raise on appeal is best left to an experienced Pennsylvania criminal appeals lawyer like Lloyd Long. Clients (and inexperienced lawyers) want to raise every imaginable issue, but that is often a bad idea. It gives appellate judges the impression that you are throwing everything at the wall and hoping that something sticks. You do not want overworked judges thinking like that. It is far better practice to only raise claims that present a real likelihood of success. If you are wondering whether or not your claim can be raised on appeal, contact us today to request a consultation.