Misdemeanor Appeals

By King, Nancy J.; Heise, Michael | Boston University Law Review, October 2019 | Go to article overview

Misdemeanor Appeals


King, Nancy J., Heise, Michael, Boston University Law Review


Introduction

Misdemeanor cases dominate the criminal caseloads of state trial courts. Each year, state prosecutors charge an estimated 13.2 million defendants with assault; DUI; vagrancy; gambling; drunkenness; liquor-law violations; disorderly conduct; prostitution; vandalism; theft; drug possession; and a range of traffic offenses, such as reckless driving, speeding, eluding police, and driving with a suspended license.1 Those convicted are fined, sentenced to terms of probation, or, less frequently, sentenced to short terms of incarceration-often the "time served" waiting in jail for their cases to be resolved.2

For defendants charged with misdemeanors and their families, the hardship of fulfilling a misdemeanor sentence pales in comparison to the consequences of the process itself.3 For defendants who are not convicted, missed work from detention and multiple court appearances while the charge is pending can lead to job loss and eviction, for example, and the arrest alone marks the defendant for harsher treatment should there be future criminal justice encounters.4 For those convicted, that criminal record has an impact that lasts much longer than the time it takes to satisfy the sentence itself. It can cost defendants their driver's licenses5 and voting rights;6 cripple employment opportunities;7 and end essential government benefits for housing, nutrition, and education.8 Some misdemeanor convictions lead to deportation9 or to registration and residency restrictions as a sex offender.10 And when a defendant is unable to pay fines, fees, and costs, even one of these "minor" convictions can lead to debilitating debt.11

A resurgence of interest in misdemeanor enforcement's huge impact on society, particularly on poor and minority communities, has fueled an explosion in new empirical research about misdemeanor arrests,12 charging,13 bail,14 counsel,15 sentencing,16 and collateral consequences.17 Yet what we know about contemporary misdemeanor-case processing remains incomplete, with gaping holes.

This Article contributes new information to help fill an important void. It provides the first quantitative look at appellate review in misdemeanor cases, using data collected by the National Center for State Courts in its Survey of State Court Criminal Appeals ("NCSC Appeals Study")-data drawn from a random sample of direct criminal appeals decided by every state appellate court in the nation.18 To provide additional context, we also reference unpublished aggregate data on misdemeanor cases in state trial courts provided to us by the Court Statistics Project ("CSP")19 and published state court statistics on trial court review of lower court misdemeanor adjudication.20 We examine how misdemeanor prosecutions in trial courts compare to the cases that reach appellate courts; what claims of error state appellate courts actually review; and which factors associate with the likelihood of success for defendants who appeal from misdemeanor judgments, including crime type, claim raised, judicialselection method, and type of representation.21 We also provide the first quantitative look at how misdemeanor appeals differ from felony appeals.22

This Article unfolds as follows. Part I reviews the legal framework for misdemeanor appeals and summarizes existing empirical scholarship on these appeals. We estimate that, at most, approximately eight in ten thousand misdemeanor judgments are appealed. We then lay out the reasons why the level of review is so much less than in felony cases, and include the first empirical examination of appeals to trial courts in two-tier trial court systems in multiple states.

Part II explains our primary research questions: First, which misdemeanor cases reach appellate courts (and which do not)? Second, what factors correspond with a higher likelihood of success for the appeals that are filed? And third, how do misdemeanor appeals differ from felony appeals? Part III describes our data and the empirical strategy we used to investigate these questions. …

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