When Can I Appeal a Case?

I have discussed appeals before, but some of you may wonder, “when can I appeal a case?” This post attempts to answer that question with as little legalese as possible. A case is appealable at two times: (1) at the final order and disposition of the case, or (2) if it is an order included in the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure (P.R.A.P.) Rule 311. Each of these will be discussed in turn.

What is a “final order”?

P.R.A.P. Rule 341 defines a “final order” for us. When the case is over an order is given by the judge. The order is the final order and disposition when it gives a ruling regarding all claims and all parties, or it is expressly defined as a final order. In other words, that order disposes all of the things the court was supposed to address and so it is appealable.

An order may also be a final order if, when there are multiple claims and only one claim has a verdict, and it has appealable issues, and getting a final verdict on that issue will help determine the other claims,then the court will allow the appeal. This strategy would come into play only when there are multiple claims, and is a little more complicated than the other 2 final dispositions.

Discuss with your attorney what orders are final, although it is usually straightforward. If everything appears to be addressed in the order, it is final. If there are claims or parties left in limbo, it is not final. If it is not final, you might still be able to appeal if the appeal will deal with those claims or parties in limbo as well.

What else is appealable?

The other appealable issues arise when someone’s rights are going to be irreversibly affected by the order, but it is definitely not a final order. When an order is appealed but is not a final order, it is called interlocutory.

–          An order refusing to vacate, open, or strike a judgment is immediately appealable because it is an order which affects a judgment of a person.

–          An order to attach, vacating an attachment, or refusing to attach is appealable. An attachment is a lien on property, meaning that if somebody owed you money, you could attach his property and sell it to get the money. Selling property is something that causes irreversible damage.

–          An order to change criminal venue is appealable. This means that if your trial is ordered moved you have the right to appeal that decision because where your trial takes place determines the jury that will be called and that could cause irreversible harm.

–          An order granting, denying or altering an injunction is appealable. An injunction tells a person they may not do something. Because Americans have a liberty interest in being free to do various things, the order can cause irreparable harm.

–          An order determining the validity of a will or trust is appealable so that no distributions will be made from the estate or trust until all issues have been worked out.

It’s a long list, and it is incomplete. Other cases and rules alter this list slightly, but these are the more common instances of appealable issues.

If you think you have an appealable order, and have a reason to appeal it, you should talk to your attorney. Your attorney should be able to inform you of whether your hunch is right and you have an appealable order.

What if I appeal the case, and it turns out it wasn’t appealable yet?

You must meet all procedural requirements of docketing the case and giving the court the trial record. If, after doing that, the court finds that the issue is not ripe for appeal, the Court will then “quash” the appeal. What happens when a court “quashes” an appeal? The judge gets really, REALLY mad and yells at you!

No, no, just kidding.

When a court refuses to hear an appeal, it quashes it. This simply means the court hands the issue back to the trial court. The appeals court will remand the issue so that the trial court can finish its job, whether that be to go to trial, to finalize an order, or some procedural step that was missed such as filing a document. Your case is not prejudiced by being remanded to the trial court, it is just the appeals court explaining that it’s not your turn to be heard.

After the trial court finishes its job, you will be permitted to appeal again.

Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA)

The PCRA is an indirect method of appeal in criminal cases. A direct appeal is when a criminal case is appealed from the Court of Common Pleas, where the accused lost the case, and wants to challenge some aspect of it. For more on direct appeals, read my post here. An indirect appeal in a PCRA allows the person to have the case reconsidered when a direct appeal to the Superior Court has been denied.

The PCRA must be filed within one year of the denial of the final direct appeal, or after the conviction if the defendant chooses not to use direct appeals. The one year rule does have some exceptions. The basic exceptions include: where counsel effectively abandons the defendant in the PCRA process, where the petition is an extension of a previously filed petition that was within the one year limit, where the government blocked the petition in some manner, where the new evidence could not have been known within the one year limit, and finally, where the court has determined that constitutional rights are such that the extension must be given.

PCRA is limited on its grounds for appeal. The full text of the act can be read here, but I will summarize it briefly. Under 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9541 et seq, you may only begin the process for the PCRA if your conviction or sentence resulted from:

  • A violation of the Constitution of Pennsylvania or of the United states, or of the laws of the United States, and the violation occurred under circumstances which so undermined the process that no reliable adjudication of truth could have taken place
  • There was ineffective assistance of counsel such that no reliable determination of truth could have taken place
  • A plea of guilty was gotten under circumstances which make it likely that the defendant was induced to falsely make the statement and the defendant is innocent
  • Government officials wrongly obstructed the defendant’s right to appeal where an issue for appeal was present and capable of being appealed
  • New evidence has come to light which would have changed the outcome of the trial
  • A sentence was imposed which was greater than the lawful maximum
  • The court proceeding took place in a tribunal which did not have jurisdiction

Additionally, the statute requires that the allegation in the petition has not been previously litigated in court (it is a new issue) and it has not been waived by a failure to raise the issue (you didn’t bring it up and you were only permitted to bring it up at a certain point of the proceeding). The failure to litigate the issue cannot be the result of a rational or strategic move by the defendant’s attorney at trial.

You may notice the phrase “reliable adjudication of the truth” or “reliable determination of the truth.” These phrases are synonymous and mean that, because of what happened at trial, the facts or process was so distorted that no one could have discovered the truth. The courts have stated that the issue must go directly to the truth-determining process. (Commonwealth v. Bennett, 2007).

Another thing to mention is the process that a person must be given for the court to have properly reviewed the PCRA claim. Although the amount of due process required is less stringent than at trial, a defendant who petitions is still entitled to present his or her claims in a meaningful time and have them considered in a meaningful manner.

A petition for post-conviction relief must conform to certain processes and is subject to parameters defined by statute and the court. When you consider a PCRA, you also need to consider what attorney you will hire, and find one with the experience and the dedication to see the petition through. Failure to obtain the right counsel can result in the denial of your petition.

Call Shannon K. McDonald to discuss your potential PCRA petition today.

Your Rights at a DUI Stop: Sobriety Checkpoints and DUI Roadblocks

Sobriety checkpoints and DUI roadblocks are increasingly used to enforce DUI laws. The courts have found that if the police follow specific guidelines, a systematic checkpoint is constitutional. The police must follow certain roadblock guidelines and respect your individual rights.

If the guidelines set out by the courts are not followed, then the DUI arrest may be invalid. You should discuss with your attorney the process that you underwent regarding the arrest: from the initial stop, up until the arrest and Miranda Warnings.

What guidelines are there?

The United States Supreme Court case Michigan v. Sitz established many of the guidelines that police officers must follow in a roadblock or DUI checkpoint. Pennsylvania has established a number of other cases which largely follow these guidelines.

  • The police may not choose vehicles at random: The officers conducting the checkpoint musty have a pre-established neutral mathematical formula for which cars to stop. For example, officers may determine ahead of time that they will stop only every third car. This prevents potential discrimination by stopping individuals based on appearance.
  • Checkpoints must be established to ensure safety of police and the drivers: The roadblock must be highly visible to ensure time for stopping or slowing down to a safe speed. The roadblock must also be done in a way that minimizes the amount of time each driver is at a checkpoint.
  • You may turn around prior to the checkpoint: So long as you do not break any traffic laws or regulations, you have the right to turn around and take a different prior to being stopped at the checkpoint. That is, if you can turn off one block ahead of the actual checkpoint, you may do so to avoid the sobriety check.
  • The stop may not last long enough to constitute an unreasonable seizure of the person without reasonable suspicion: when a driver is stopped, the initial interaction with police may last only long enough to ask a few questions and determine reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion may include slurred speech, an odor of alcohol, glassy or bloodshot eyes. If the officer cannot cite reasonable suspicion within that brief initial meeting, the driver should be allowed to leave.
  • Sobriety Checkpoints and DUI Roadblocks are only permitted if they are planned and a part of an on-going safe driving program and the checkpoint follows established protocol: You should discuss with your attorney whether the protocol was established and if so whether a judge or a representative from the district attorney’s office participated in it.

The Supreme Court deemed that a car stopped at a roadblock is a seizure, but, if the purpose of the roadblock is to ensure the safety of all drivers, and the interaction is brief, then the seizure is not unreasonable. Sobriety Checkpoints are not meant to identify criminal behavior and are considered a part of regulatory law, not criminal law.

What are your rights?

As an individual faced with a Sobriety Checkpoint or a DUI Roadblock, you have certain rights. Your rights fall mainly under the Fourth Amendment, the right against unreasonable search and seizure. The government may not intrude beyond the point of a reasonable seizure.

A Sobriety Checkpoint must meet five criteria:

  1. Vehicle stops must be brief and may not entail a physical search
  2. There  must be sufficient warning of the stop prior to arrival and you have the right to avoid the DUI stop if you may do so lawfully
  3. Decisions for the checkpoint, time, conduct, etc. are subject to prior administrative approval
  4. Timing and placement of the checkpoint must be based on experience as to when and where intoxicated drivers have been found previously
  5. Decisions as to which vehicle to stop must be predetermined and is not to be left to officer discretion.

Knowing these rights ahead of time can help you when faced with a Sobriety Checkpoint or DUI Roadblock. If you believe that your rights have been violated, or that you have a challenge to the roadblock, please contact our office today for a free consultation.