Pennsylvania’s appeals courts
Like every other state in the country, Pennsylvania’s court system has multiple tiers: Magisterial District Courts, for minor crimes; Common Pleas Courts for more serious crimes; Intermediate Appellate Courts; and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Commonwealth and Superior Courts of Pennsylvania are the two intermediate appellate courts. Most criminal appeals from a Court of Common Pleas will be heard by the Superior Court.
Appeals in the federal court system
The federal court system is structured similarly to Pennsylvania’s Court system. The equivalent of the Superior Court in the federal system is the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. There are multiple ways that an appeals case can end up in the Federal court system, the most common being if it is a constitutional issue that is being appealed, or, of course, if the case involves a federal offense.
Types of appeals
There are several types of appeals. Some common types are interlocutory appeals, post-sentence (or direct) appeals and PCRA petitions. Interlocutory appeals are those that occur during the course of a trial, for example, appealing a ruling suppressing evidence. A post-sentence appeal is exactly what its name implies and is discussed in detail below. Most post-sentence appeals come from the defense. PCRAs are appeals initiated by a defendant who has already been sentenced and exhausted all other appeals options. In an appeal, the appealing party is referred to as the Appellant, and the other party case is referred to as the Appellee.
Both the defense and prosecution can appeal virtually anything other than the jury’s verdict. In order to appeal an issue post-sentencing, that issue must have been preserved at trial. That is, the trial attorney must have objected to the issue or otherwise brought it to formal attention during the trial phase.
What are some examples of issues that may be appealed?
Rulings: A party moved to suppress a certain piece of evidence or testimony before trial, and that motion was denied by the trial judge.
Overruled objections:A party objected to something during the trial, and the judge overruled his objection (or, alternatively, sustained the opposing party’s objection).
Illegal sentences: The sentencing judge issued a sentence that was outside of the legal boundaries. A defendant generally will not have success appealing a sentence that seems unfair or harsh, yet is within the guideline ranges. In such a case, the defendant would file a Motion to Modify and Reduce the sentence.
Jury instructions: The trial judge failed to give a specific set of jury instructions
Prosecutorial misconduct: The prosecution withheld certain pieces of evidence from the defense, made empty promises of leniency to codefendants in exchange for testimony, planting evidence, etc.
Ineffective assistance of counsel: Trial counsel was so ineffective that there was a violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights.
What is the appeals process?
In post-sentence appeals to the Superior Court, the aggrieved party will file a Notice of Appeal, followed by a Concise Statement of Matters Complained on Appeal, or 1925(b). The judge who issued the order or ruling that is being appealed will then file an Opinion in Support of Order, or 1925(a). The appellant will then file a brief which explains his or her arguments, followed by the appellee filing his or her brief. After all briefs and reply briefs have been filed, the case will be heard before the Superior Court, who will either reverse or affirm the lower Court’s decision.
After the Superior Court issues its opinion, the losing party (that is, the appellant if the decision is affirmed or the appellee if the decision is reversed) may appeal to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, like the Supreme Court of the United States, has discretionary jurisdiction, meaning that it chooses what cases it will hear. If the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania hears a case and either party is not satisfied with its decision, or if the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decides not to hear the case, the respective party can petition to appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
What is a PCRA?
Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) appeals are unique in that unlike interlocutory and post-trial appeals, they are typically initiated by the person who was sentenced, rather than his or her attorney. A PCRA can only be filed after a failed direct appeal to the Superior Court. PCRA petitions may only raise one or more of the following issues:
- Violation of the Constitution of Pennsylvania or the United States
- Ineffective assistance of cousnel (this is the most common claim)
- Illegally induced guilty plea
- Government obstruction
- New evidence
- Illegal sentence
- Trial court did not have jurisdiction
Most PCRAs come from prisoners, but there are instances where a PCRA will come from someone who has either completed his jail sentence or did not receive incarceration. These PCRAs are rarer and less successful than PCRAs from those who are incarcerated.
The first step of the PCRA process is to file a PCRA petition to the Common Pleas Court that sentenced him. If the petition was filed without an attorney, and if the case has merit, then counsel will “clean up” the petition and file an Amended PCRA Petition. There will then be a hearing on the matter, and if successful, the person can get a new trial, be resentenced, have the case dismissed or a number of other outcomes.
When must appeals be filed?
Post-sentence appeals must be filed within 30 days of sentencing or within 30 days of the judge denying a Motion to Modify and Reduce the sentence. In most circumstances, PCRAs must be filed within one year of sentencing. If the reason for the PCRA is “new facts” that were not available at trial, one year time frame does not apply, and instead, it must be filed within 60 days of discovery of the new facts. Some issues, such as an illegal sentence, can never be time-barred.
Can I appeal if I plead guilty?
Generally, a guilty plea precludes you from appealing. Exceptions to this are if you plead guilty and have not yet been sentenced, or if ineffective assistance of counsel by way of patently flawed advice caused you to plead guilty.