What is the Time Limit on Federal Criminal Appeals? - Securities Litigation & Compliance Services
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What is the Time Limit on Federal Criminal Appeals?

federal appeal

In federal court, defendants only have a very limited amount of time to appeal their convictions and sentences. If a defendant’s Notice of Appeal is even a day late, this can result in complete loss of the defendant’s federal appellate rights.

The road to a guilty verdict in federal district court is a long one. Most federal criminal cases begin well before the defendant is even aware. In the initial stages, the government launches its investigation without the defendant’s (or, at this point, target’s) knowledge, and federal agents make a strategic decision about when to disclose their inquiry.

Federal agents disclose their investigations through various means. Oftentimes, the initial contact with the target is informal—a phone call or a knock on the defendant’s door. “We’re just looking for some information.” In other cases, the investigating agency will issue a target letter or subpoena. Even then, while the target’s concerns may be beginning to grow, there is little concern that this specific moment in time will eventually lead to a criminal conviction in federal district court.

Raids and the execution of search warrants can be more concerning; and, oftentimes, cases that begin this way (at least from the defendant’s perspective) move more quickly. After an arrest, an indictment will soon follow, and this is when defendants usually start the process of accepting that their future is in jeopardy. A plea deal may be in the cards, but at this point they realize that they may need to ask a jury to spare them at trial.

Federal Criminal Defendants Can (and Should) File Appeals in Many Circumstances

Even during trial, there is often still an aspect of denial. When you’re sitting in federal district court at the defendant’s table facing serious federal charges, it is hard to believe that your situation is real. This is true regardless of what you know about the facts or what you think about the charges against you. While some guilty defendants resign themselves to a conviction, good federal defense lawyers know that there is always a chance of success in the courtroom.

Sometimes, this chance of success comes on appeal.

A lot can happen during a federal criminal trial. Some things will go the prosecution’s way. Some things will go the defendant’s way. Some things will happen that shouldn’t. It is events that fall into this latter category that provide defendants the opportunity to challenge their convictions and sentences at the next level, in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Understanding the Risks of Missing the Deadline for a Federal Criminal Appeal

The right to appeal an unjust conviction or sentence is fundamental to our system of justice. The Federal Rules of Appeal recognize that mistakes can—and will—be made at trial, and they provide the opportunity to right these wrongs. The right to appeal has saved countless individuals and companies from unjust sentences, and it will continue to do so for as long as the U.S. criminal justice system exists.

But, many defendants have lost their appellate rights as well.

Despite the fundamental and critical nature of federal appeals, individuals and companies that need to challenge their criminal convictions only have a very limited amount of time to do so. Rule 4(b)(1)(A) of the Federal Rules of Appeal establishes a strict deadline for filing a “Notice of Appeal.” If a defendant’s Notice of Appeal is even a day late, this can solidify the defendant’s conviction or sentence—no matter how wrongful it may be.

The Time Limit for Filing a Notice of Appeal in a Federal Criminal Case

So, the time limit. What is it? The time limit for filing a federal appeal is surprisingly—and many criminal justice advocates would say alarmingly and unfairly—short. Under Rule 4(b)(1)(A), criminal defendants have just 14 days to decide whether to appeal the court’s decision. The rule says, in full:

“In a criminal case, a defendant’s Notice of Appeal must be filed in the district court within 14 days after the later of: (I) the entry of either the judgment or the order being appealed; or (ii) the filing of the government’s Notice of Appeal.”

Rule 4(b)(2) clarifies that defendants (or their counsel) can file a Notice of Appeal before the entry of a judgment or order, in which case the Notice of Appeal, “is treated as filed on the date of and after the entry.”

In some cases, in fact in many cases, it will make sense for federal defendants to seek relief from unjust orders and sentences at the district court level before asking a panel of appellate judges to overturn the trial judge’s decision at the U.S. Court of Appeals. Rule 4(b)(3) acknowledges this scenario, and provides that:

“If a defendant timely makes any of the following motions under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedures, the Notice of Appeal from a judgment or conviction must be filed within 14 days after the entry of the order disposing of the last such remaining motion, or within 14 days after the entry of the judgment of conviction, whichever period ends later. This provision applies to a timely motion: (I) for a judgment of acquittal under Rule 29; (II) for a new trial under Rule 33, but if based on newly discovered evidence, only if the motion is made no later than 14 days after the entry of the judgment; or (III) for arrest of judgment under Rule 34.”

Notably, while the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure grant defendants just 14 days to file a Notice of Appeal, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has more time to make its decision. Under Rule 4(a)(1)(B), the government has 30 days from the later of the court’s entry of an order or the defendant’s notice filing to file its Notice of Appeal. Why is this the case? That’s a good question.

A Notice of Appeal is Not an Appeal

It is important to clarify what needs to be filed by the 14-day deadline. As discussed above, this deadline applies to the defendant’s “Notice of Appeal.” This is a one-page pleading, and the U.S. Courts even make forms available online.

To file a Notice of Appeal, a defendant does not need to know the grounds for the appeal itself. Filing a Notice of Appeal is purely an act of preservation—defendants do not risk losing their right to present any particular appellate arguments at this stage (unless they miss the deadline). Filing a Notice of Appeal without knowledge of any particular grounds for appeal is not a “frivolous” filing, and defendants can—and should—file before they know how, or even if, they are going to challenge their conviction or sentence at the appellate level.

Once a defendant (or the U.S. Attorney’s Office) files a Notice of Appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals will issue an order scheduling the next deadlines in the defendant’s case. This scheduling order will determine the time limit for filing the defendant’s or government’s appellate brief (which is what many would refer to as filing “the appeal”), and counsel must work diligently to meet the deadline. While it is possible to request an extension when necessary in some cases, until an extension is granted, counsel will need to work toward meeting the appellate court’s deadline to avoid jeopardizing his or her client’s appeal.

What if You Miss the 14-Day Deadline to File a Notice of Appeal?

Fourteen days is not a long time. This is true under any set of circumstances, it is especially true when you’ve just been through a months-long (if not years-long) criminal trial and are now facing the reality of an unfavorable verdict. This is a difficult, stressful, and hectic time for defendants, and filing a Notice of Appeal is generally just one of numerous concerns defendants will have in the days and weeks following a trial that doesn’t go their way. As a result, some defendants will miss their deadline to file a Notice of Appeal.

If this happens, what options are still on the table?

While going through the federal appeals process is one way to challenge a conviction or sentence, it isn’t necessarily the only option available to defendants. In some cases, defendants may be able to file post-trial motions (such as a motion for acquittal, new trial, or arrest of judgment as referenced in Rule 4(b)(3)). Not only does the motion itself provide an opportunity for success, but it also effectively restarts the 14-day clock—at least with respect to the subject matter of the motion. If a defendant has exhausted his, her, or its options at the trial level, filing a petition for post-conviction relief may be an option as well.

Contact the Federal Appellate Lawyers at Oberheiden P.C.

If you need to know more about the deadlines or the procedures for filing a federal criminal appeal, we encourage you to contact us for a complimentary initial consultation. To speak with a federal appellate lawyer at Oberheiden P.C. in confidence, please call 888-680-1745 or request an appointment online today.

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