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Appeals Can Succeed, and Sometimes Even When They Shouldn’t!

In a criminal case, a defendant (or their attorney) may make a Motion under Penal Code section 1538.5 to Suppress Evidence (even intangible evidence) obtained by the police in the investigation of an offense. The argument is essentially that police broke the law to obtain the evidence, and therefore shouldn’t be able to use it in a Trial, or even mention it.

If the court denies said Motion, there is often the opportunity to file an Appeal.

What is an Appeal?

An Appeal, regarding a Motion, is a reconsideration of the Motion by a group of three or more judges who were not involved with deciding the Motion the first time, and who will decide upon it again based on a simple majority decision.

After the defendant loses a Motion, their attorney can request an Appeal. The Appeals Court will then read the transcript of the testimony from the Motion Hearing, along with written and oral arguments from both sides regarding who should’ve succeeded the first time around, and why. The Appeals Court will “Affirm” a decision if they believe it was initially correct; “Reverse” a decision they believe was incorrect, and can even “Remand” a case if they want the original court to do the hearing again with specific instructions to do it differently.

Real-Life Example of a Successful Appeal Process

In a recent case[1], after first losing a Motion to Suppress Evidence in the original court, and Appealing the Motion in the Appeals Court, the Appeals Court ruled the original court was wrong and ordered the evidence be suppressed as the defendant had originally requested.

What’s most interesting about this case though, is it seems the Appeals Court ruled in favor of the Defendant, despite not actually believing his arguments to be correct, simply because the Prosecutor failed to make arguments which the Appeals Court said would have succeeded had they done so.

In this case, police stopped a vehicle due to not having any license plates. At the beginning of the encounter, police approached the passenger-side door, opened it, and leaned inside “to talk with the driver”. The officer claimed at the Motion Hearing he did so “because the gas pump blocked his access to the driver-side.” During this investigation, it turned out the driver had a suspended driver’s license. Police then prepared to tow the car, but inventoried its contents first. During said inventory, police discovered a gun under the seat, and arrested the driver for “Felon in Possession of a Firearm.”

In the original court, the man’s attorney requested a Motion to Suppress Evidence, arguing police had no justification to open the door or lean inside the vehicle, and that all evidence relating to the gun should therefore be suppressed. It’s important as well that the vehicle had a “bill of sale” affixed to the windshield which the man’s attorney argued in court the cop should’ve seen, and which should’ve then eliminated the need for any further detention.

The original judge focused on the wrong issues, stating there was no proof the officer actually saw the “bill of sale,” making the basis for further detention reasonable.

On Appeal, the Appeals Court ruled that regardless of the location of the gas pump; or the officer’s seeing or not seeing the “bill of sale”; or even the officer’s right to further detain the individual, the officer simply had no right to open the door or stick his head inside absent more justification presented to the court. The Appeals Court “Reversed” the Motion’s ruling.

The Appeals Court commented further in this case, however: that the Prosecutor should have argued the Doctrine of Inevitable Discovery – because regardless of police’s illegal intrusion into the vehicle, police would have inevitably discovered the man was driving with a suspended license, impounded his vehicle, and thereby discovered the illegal firearm when they performed the required pre-tow inventory search.

What to Take From This Example?

Even Defendants who don’t truly deserve to win their Motion, sometimes do. An Appeals Court should rule based on arguments actually made, and not based on arguments that could have or should have been made; just as was done in this case.

Requirements for an Appeal

Like all court procedures, there are strict requirements for filing an Appeal.

After a judge renders a decision, if that decision is Appeal-able, there will be a strict time limit to file a “Notice of Appeal” in the original court. How long that time limit is depends on what exactly the Appeal regards. Some Motions and court rulings require a “Notice of Appeal” to be filed within 10 days of the judge’s ruling; others allow for 30 days or 60 days.

Filing a Notice of Appeal is often the first step in the Appeal process. Don’t be late filing a Notice of Appeal or else the Appeals Court may reject your case without even considering its merits.

If you have questions about Appeals in a criminal case, please contact our office and speak with our attorneys, Ivan O.B. Morse or Ryan L. Smith, at (888) 865-0741, or visit our website to request a free consultation.