Criminal defendants generally can’t appeal “lawful” sentences. But a defendant can appeal a sentence if it’s illegal, unconstitutional, or unreasonably excessive. For example, if a judge imposes a sentence that exceeds the maximum punishment allowed for the crime in question, an appeals court would have the power to correct the sentence.
In some states, however, if the defendant didn’t notify the sentencing judge of an illegal sentence, the appellate court cannot review it. (The way the defense is supposed to notify the trial court—for example, by a petition for review of the sentence—depends on the jurisdiction.)
Other situations in which appeals courts may modify (or order trial courts to modify) sentences include when those sentences:
Federal courts follow the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in imposing sentences. Occasionally, a judge “departs” from them and sentences the defendant above the top of the guideline range for the offense. But an appeals court will reverse the sentence only if the judge abused his or her discretion, or imposed a sentence above the maximum set by the statute that defines the crime.
On the other hand, a judge may refuse to depart “downward” in sentencing a defendant, meaning that he or she won’t issue a sentence that’s lower than what the guidelines call for. In that scenario, the appeals court will review the sentence only if the trial court made a mistake about its authority, such as wrongly presuming that it didn't have the discretion to depart from the guidelines.
Some states allow review of a sentence if it was potentially “disproportionate” to the crime even if it wasn’t above the maximum allowed by law. In federal court, a review for proportionality is required for death and life without parole.
In setting the standard for reviewing a sentence for proportionality, the Supreme Court held that it was disproportionate to sentence a man to life in prison for issuing a bad check despite his criminal history. (Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983).)
The law also protects defendants from vindictive sentencing. For example, if a defendant succeeds on appeal and her case goes back to the judge for resentencing, then that judge’s new sentence is normally presumed to be vindictive if it’s harsher than the original punishment and there isn’t new information to justify it.
The terms of plea bargains often require defendants who plead guilty to waive the right to appeal the conviction or sentence. But if the sentence imposed by the court was beyond its authority, then the waiver of appeal may not apply. Also, if the lawyer was deficient—for example, by failing to advise the client of the consequences of the plea—then the defendant may be able to attack the sentence. (For more on appealing after a guilty plea, see our article on conditional pleas.)
If you’ve been convicted of a crime and are considering appealing the conviction or sentence, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney. Appellate criminal defense lawyers specialize in post-trial proceedings and will be able to tell you more about the kinds of errors in your jurisdiction that can cause a court to reverse a conviction or alter a sentence.