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The difference between an appeal and motion for post-conviction relief

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What’s the Difference Between an Appeal and Motion for Post-Conviction Relief in Florida and Federal Courts?

A criminal conviction can be challenged in two ways: by appeal and by a motion for post-conviction relief.

What Is an Appeal?

In Florida courts, except in a case where the death penalty has been imposed, an appeal is taken to a District Court of Appeal. With few exceptions, a District Court of Appeal has jurisdiction to review all final orders of trial courts. A judgment of conviction and order imposing sentence in a criminal case is a final order.

An appeal is not a new trial in a different court. Rather, it is an examination of the record of what happened in the trial court to determine whether the trial judge made mistakes serious enough to have affected the outcome of the trial.

Nothing new can be added to the case. Appellate courts base their decisions on a legal review of the written record from the trial and on the legal argument of the defense and prosecution.

An appellate court does not hear live witnesses or decide the facts of the case. The courts limit their review to legal issues. The appellate court examines the objections raised at trial, and rulings of the trial court to determine whether the trial judge made the correct rulings. If the trial court did not make the correct ruling, that does not guarantee a reversal on appeal. If the mistake was a minor one in the context of the trial as a whole, the appellate court will not reverse a conviction.

What Are the Possible Outcomes of an Appeal?

During an appeal, the appellate court can examine anything that occurred during the trial. However, it can only reverse if the lawyers raised the issue before the trial court. Judges are neutral – they cannot assert themselves on behalf of either the state or the defendant unless the lawyers have asked the court for a ruling. Even then, the trial judge will make the ruling based on the arguments the lawyers have raised. The trial judge will not jump in and tell a lawyer what argument to make.

If the trial judge has made a serious mistake and the appellate court reverses, two outcomes are possible. In certain limited circumstances, the appellate court will order the defendant to be released, and the criminal conviction erased.

More often, the appellate court will reverse the conviction or sentence and send the case back to the trial court to be retried or re-sentenced without the errors that made reversal necessary. If the conviction is reversed (rather than the sentencing), the prosecution can decide to retry or dismiss the case.

When Can a Defendant Appeal Their Conviction?

A defendant who wants to appeal has a limited time in which to do so. In Florida state courts, a defendant has 30 days to file a notice of appeal. If they fail to do so, they have lost their right to appeal. In Federal court, a defendant has only 14 days to file the notice of appeal. However, if good cause exists, the appellate court may extend the deadline for an additional 30 days.

What Is a Motion for Post-Conviction Relief?

A motion for post-conviction relief is a different proceeding. It is much more limited in scope. There are only six reasons a defendant is allowed to request post-conviction relief.

The most common reasons include:

  • A plea of guilty was involuntary, or
  • “The judgment or sentence is otherwise subject to collateral attack”

Usually, these claims are based on an assertion that defense counsel was “ineffective.” That means defense counsel made mistakes so serious that the attorney was not functioning as required by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The motion for post-conviction relief is considered by the trial court, not the appellate court. Unlike an appeal, the defendant is allowed to present new evidence – usually evidence relating to what the lawyer did, and how it negatively affected the defense of the case. The trial court will hold a hearing if the defendant filed a written submission alleging facts that, if proven, could result in a reversal of the conviction.

When Must the Defendant File a Motion for Post-Conviction Relief?

The time limit is much longer to file a motion for post-conviction relief than an appeal. In Florida state courts, a defendant has two years from the time the conviction became final to file a motion for post-conviction relief. In federal court, the defendant has only one year.

These differing rules sometimes create a trap because the rules that govern federal motions are separate from the rules governing state motions. If the request for relief is based on a question of federal law, the defendant can raise the question first in state court, and if the motion is denied, then raise the question in federal court. The time spent determining the motion in state court delays the starting point for the one-year federal time limit.

Defendants that go this route, however, must file the state motion within one year, so that there will be enough time left to file a motion in federal court. If a defendant files a motion for post-conviction relief in state court 13 months after their conviction becomes final, they can never file a motion in federal court because the time to file a federal motion expired before the state motion was filed. That is, the state motion does not delay the time to file the federal motion, because once a year has passed, there is no time period remaining that the state motion can delay.

Motion for Post-Conviction Relief Was Granted. What Happens Next?

If a post-conviction relief motion is granted, the case will then be retried. The prosecution decides whether to proceed with a new trial or dismiss the case. The process can be complicated and requires a skilled attorney with years of experience handling criminal defense matters.

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