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California Appeals Process: Common Standards of Review

A Closer Look at Standards of Appeal in Criminal Cases

Contrary to popular belief, an appeal is not a new trial. Defendants who are convicted of a crime often attempt to overturn their convictions and fail. If you are unhappy with the outcome of your criminal trial, you cannot file for an appeal. In fact, you could get punished for filing an appeal that’s not supported by a valid reason. However, you can ask the appellate court if the trial court made certain legal mistakes in your case that caused you harm.

Once you argue that the trial court made a legal error that harmed you, the appellate court will identify the standard of review for the specific decision made in your case. The 4 common standards of review in criminal cases include:

Abuse of discretion: This standard is applied if your appeal involves the trial court’s use of discretion, such as a judge’s decision on whether or not to admit certain evidence in your trial. Other examples of abuse of discretion include:

  • A trial court fails to apply the correct law in a case
  • A trial court makes a decision based on clearly erroneous findings of a material fact
  • The trial court rules in an irrational manner
  • The trial court makes an error of law
  • The record contains no evidence to support the trial court’s decision

Although uncommon, abuse of discretion occurs when a trial court judge makes an error by exercising discretion that is not justified by the evidence presented at trial, making a judgment that defies the logic and effects of the facts in question.

Substantial evidence: This standard is used if your appeal argues that the trial court’s decision about your case was not supported by substantial evidence. As such, the appellate court will review the record to ensure there is substantial evidence that reasonably supports the trial court’s decision.

You must know that the appellate court does not decide whether it would have reached the same conclusions as the judge or jury did at trial. Instead, it decides whether or not a reasonable fact-finder would have come to the same conclusion as the trial court based on the facts detailed in the record. If the appellate court does, however, find an issue with the evidence, it may only overturn the trial court’s decision if it determines that a reasonable fact-finder could not identify the elements required to prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

De novo: De novo means “from the beginning” in Latin. Accordingly, the de novo standard requires the appellate court to look at a criminal case as if the trial court never made a ruling on it. The de novo standard is generally applied when issues arise involving questions of law, such as the interpretation of a contract or law. In these situations, the appellate court doesn’t assume the trial court’s ruling is accurate but rather reviews the issue from the beginning and independently, hence the term “de novo.” However, this standard of review is not considered a new trial because the appellate court does not look at new evidence; it reviews cases based on evidence in their records from the trial court.

Clearly erroneous: Under this standard, the appellate court reviews the trial court’s findings of fact, which typically involve credibility determinations. Review under the clearly erroneous standard requires a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed, such as in findings of fact based on stipulations, written record only, or after a bench trial.

Do You Believe You Were Wrongfully Convicted?

A criminal conviction is among the most life-altering experiences a person can have. As such, our Santa Barbara appellate lawyers understand that you want to fight tooth and nail for your freedom no matter what it takes. However, we urge you to consult our attorneys before you file your appeal to ensure your claim is valid and feasible for appeal. If we find that your appeal satisfies any one of the standards of review, we can help you at every stage of the process and represent fiercely champion your best interests.

Please do not hesitate to discuss your case with us by arranging a free consultation online or at (805) 467-6060!