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Understanding Criminal Procedure and Criminal Appeals in Florida

In the United States, our Constitution affords us the right to due process, and part of that is the right to appeal a court's decision. That means if your criminal trial did not conclude with the outcome you had hoped, you may be able to appeal if sufficient grounds are present. Keep in mind, however, that an appeal is not the same thing as a new trial. Many defendants also think that if they appeal, they can introduce new evidence, but that is only another misconception about criminal appeals. Criminal appeals in Florida are only permissible in certain situations, and neither retrying the case nor admitting new evidence are grounds for or occur during an appeal. 

In addition, Florida law requires that an error must be preserved to be able to raise it on appeal; otherwise, the error is considered waived. Proper preservation of error generally requires three steps. First, the party must make a timely, contemporaneous objection at the time of the alleged error. Second, the party must state a legal ground for that objection. Third, the argument on appeal must be the same argument asserted as a legal ground for the objection.

It's best not to navigate the criminal justice system on your own. At the Law Office of Ann Fitz, our criminal defense lawyer in West Palm Beach will explain what your options are if you are found guilty and subsequently sentenced. If an appeal is appropriate, we will discuss with you exactly what that may involve. It can be costly to appeal, so you always want to start your defense off right by hiring a criminal defense lawyer who is familiar with the Florida Rules of Appellate Practice and will fight to uphold your rights and seek the best outcome. Call us today at 561-932-1690 to schedule a free initial consultation if you have been found guilty and want to appeal.

What is a Criminal Appeal?

During a criminal appeal, the defendant asks a higher (appellate) court to review and either reverse or modify a lower (trial) court's decision. The party appealing the trial court's decision is the appellant (some jurisdictions prefer to use petitioner). The other party is referred to as the appellee (some jurisdictions prefer to use respondent).

In Florida, the Court of Appeals is called the District Court.  There are six District Courts of Appeal (also called DCAs) in Florida.  The Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal (4DCA) is located in West Palm Beach and handles appeals from the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Judicial Circuits, which are composed of Palm Beach, Broward, St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River, and Okeechobee Counties.

When a defendant is found guilty after a trial, they have a right to appeal the verdict. The prosecution, on the other hand, cannot appeal an acquittal. The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits double jeopardy, which means you cannot be tried twice for the same criminal allegation. Both the prosecution and the defense, however, can appeal a defendant's sentence as well as any interim decisions made by a judge, like the admissibility of certain evidence. 

Appellate courts are concerned with legal errors. They do not hear evidence or make findings of fact as to whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. An appellate court examines a trial for any potential errors in terms of procedure, the law that was applied, and how it was applied.

The appellant (the defendant) files a notice of appeal, and upon the filing of this notice, the clock starts ticking for the appellant to file an initial brief. The initial brief states the facts and the law, explaining why the trial court's decision must be reversed. The appellee (the State) has an opportunity to respond with an answering brief. Then, the appellant may respond with a reply brief that answers the appellee's brief.

The appellate court may make a decision based on the written briefs, or they may hear oral arguments.

Grounds for a Criminal Appeal in Florida

The specific grounds of an appeal will vary from case to case. Ultimately, an appellant must show that the lower court made a substantial or material error during the trial, i.e., one that affected the outcome of the trial. A harmless error, even if an error, will not change the outcome of the lower court's decision.

The most common grounds given for a criminal appeal in Florida include but are not limited to sentencing errors, sufficiency of the evidence, the erroneous application of the law or abuse of discretion, improper jury conduct, and prosecutorial misconduct.  Judicial acts that are commonly reviewed on appeal include the grant or denial of a motion in limine, the denial of a motion for judgment of acquittal, and the denial of a motion for new trial.

Sentencing Error

Just like everything else in the criminal justice system, there are rules a judge must follow when sentencing a defendant after a conviction. When sentencing rules are ignored, the sentence is considered illegal, and an appellate court will remand the matter back to the lower court for resentencing. Though this type of appeal does not reverse the trial decision's guilty verdict nor does it allow for a new trial, it does often lead to reduced or more favorable sentences.

Serious error of law

A defendant may file an appeal on the basis that the trial court made an error in how they applied the law to the facts. For example, if the judge gave incorrect instructions to the jury on a legal issue or miscalculated the sentence, that may be ground for an appeal. 

Abuse of discretion

A trial judge has wide discretion when ruling on pretrial motions and legal issues that arise during a trial. A party can appeal an interim ruling that was clearly unreasonable, erroneous, arbitrary, or unsupported by the facts or law. 

Improper jury conduct

A defendant may appeal their conviction if a juror acted improperly during the trial or deliberations. For example, if a juror speaks directly to a witness, that could be grounds for an appeal. 

Prosecutorial Misconduct

When prosecutors engage in dishonest or abusive acts in an effort to persuade a judge or jury of a defendant's guilt and those abusive acts were prejudicial and harmed the defendant's case, there may be grounds for appeal. Prosecutorial misconduct must be of the nature that even if a judge instructed the jury to disregard the improper act, the jury finds it hard to do, and that impacts the way they decide the case. Examples of prosecutorial misconduct include a prosecutor commenting on inadmissible evidence before the jurors, intentionally misstating what the law says, or appealing to the jury's prejudices.

Possible Outcomes of a Criminal Appeal in Florida

After considering an appeal, a District Court's decision may be one of many. The appellate court may:

  • Affirm the trial court's decision and uphold the conviction and sentence 
  • Reverse, or overrule, the trial court's decision
  • Remand, or return, the case to the trial court for a full retrial, resentence, or reconsideration of a specific aspect of the trial based on the appellate court's finding
  • Modify a sentence

An appellate court can also dismiss an appeal on procedural issues, such as a lack of jurisdiction. 

Contact a Criminal Appeals Lawyer in West Palm Beach Today

Criminal appeals involve a highly specialized area of law that has the potential to significantly alter the outcome of the trial court's decision. So, if you are considering appealing the outcome of your criminal trial, it's worth speaking to a criminal appeals attorney in West Palm Beach.

At the Law Office of Ann Fitz, our criminal appeals attorney has the skill and resources to help you file a timely appeal and strategically argue your case. Ann Fitz has handled numerous appeals in the Florida District Court of Appeals as a Special Assistant Public Defender and is a member of the Palm Beach County Bar Association's Appellate Practice Committee.  Not only can we provide you with expert advice, but we will also review your trial with fresh eyes to identify all potential grounds for appeal. Contact us today either by filling out the online form or calling us at 561-264-4005 to schedule a free initial consultation.

Contact Us Today

The Law Office of Ann Fitz is committed to answering your questions about Criminal Defense law issues in Florida. We offer a Free Consultation and we'll gladly discuss your case with you at your convenience. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.