If you haven't convinced a judge of your innocence at trial, your chances of overturning his or her decision by appealing are small. Even though every state gives a person the right to appeal, the process is almost always tedious, typically involving many hours and some expense. In short, before you seriously consider appealing, think long and hard about whether the time and effort are worth the outcome.
Very broadly speaking, there are two types of appeals. One type allows only an appeal on the record—that is, an appellate court will overturn the trial court only if the trial judge made a significant legal error. Another type—called "trial de novo"—allows you a second shot at a trial. Some states use one type of appeal, other states allow the other type, and a few states allow both types of appeals. It is generally easier to win when you are entitled to a new trial.
Appeal rules vary widely, so check with a court clerk. Laws governing appeals vary considerably from state to state, so start by checking your state's law. (See How to Research Traffic Laws for help with legal research.) Also, check with the clerk in the court where you were convicted for the specifics on your rights to a new trial. At the same time, ask the clerk how long you have to file a "notice of appeal," which starts the appeals process moving.
In most states where new trials are allowed, you will have to appear before a judge and plead your case again. There can be at least three reasons to consider this approach:
- If the judge in your first trial was a real "hanging" judge clearly biased against traffic court defendants. In this instance, you should check with the court clerk to see if judges are randomly selected or if a different court would handle your appeal. It's possible you could get a less-punitive judge the second time around.
- If you really did a lousy job presenting your case the first time. If you were nervous, unprepared, and railroaded by a good prosecutor or clever cop, you probably learned a lot about court procedure and how to present your case. You might want to give it a second try.
- In about a dozen states, a "de novo" trial is the first chance you have to appeal to a jury. Since it's probably fair to say juries are more friendly to defendants than judges are, you may get a better shot at acquittal the second time around in these states. (Note that in states allowing "de novo" jury trials there can be fees for the second trial, so be sure to check them out.)
But what about the majority of states (and the District of Columbia), where you are entitled to appeal a conviction only to an appellate court, claiming that the trial judge made a legal error? Here your chances of reversing the trial judge are usually somewhere between slim and slimmer. That's because the appellate court will almost always conclude that the traffic court judge ran your trial fairly and applied the law correctly. One reason this is true is that the appeals court has the power to ignore minor procedural glitches (like the trial judge letting the officer glance at notes) if it concludes that the errors were not significant.
An appeal might delay or prevent a license revocation. One time when you might want to consider an appeal—even if your case is weak—is if you face the loss of your license because of the number of points that a new conviction will add to your record. If you are only a few points away from a license suspension—and some of those points are due to expire soon—the time it takes to appeal may keep you from losing your license, even if the appeals court eventually upholds your conviction.
The process of taking your case to an appellate court is also complicated and time-consuming—so much so that preparing and arguing an appeal is beyond the scope of this book. But if you are truly committed to your cause, you can consult a law librarian for reference books on appeals, or try to find a lawyer who shares your zeal and is willing to give you some pointers and support.