What Does a DUI Appellate Court Consider?
Appellate courts typically only consider final judgments or decisions in a DUI case. A final judgment is one that disposes of all claims affecting all parties that were brought before the court. Except in extraordinarily rare circumstances, the appellate court will not retry your drunk driving case, will not weigh evidence, or review the jury’s (or the trial judge’s) determinations of credibility of witnesses, assuming testimony or documentary evidence was properly introduced at trial.
An appellate court might decide that, based on the “legally admissible” evidence, the finding of guilt was based on legally insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction. This can result from the trial judge improperly overruling objections by your criminal defense attorney or the trial judge not granting a motion for directed verdict of acquittal sought by your attorney.
In such a case, the appellate court will reverse your conviction. In some cases, the reversal will also contain language that constitutes an “acquittal,” due to the fact that (without the erroneous evidence being introduced) the remaining evidence was insufficient to support the DUI-DWI charge.
Do Appellate Courts Interview the Original Witnesses?
No. Appellate courts are quick to point out that they are not seeing and hearing the actual witnesses. Instead, they review the printed “record” (the transcript and pleadings filed at or before your trial). They seldom see any of the physical evidence presented at trial, including any police videotapes of your arrest, or performance on field sobriety tests. The focus of the appellate courts is to look for erroneous trial rulings that either could have clearly affected the outcome or were so significant to the evidence being considered by the jury that likely could have led to the conviction.
The appellate court only reviews decisions on legal issues made by the trial court. These rulings usually involve the admission of evidence, or the refusal to admit evidence. Sometimes, these rulings involve the granting or denial of oral or written motions, or the overruling or sustaining of objections made by your DUI attorney or the prosecutor in the midst of the trial.
As you can see, for you to have a good chance on appeal, your criminal defense attorney must have “created a record” by raising numerous challenges to the evidence being offered against you at trial and requiring the judge to rule on these challenges.
How Can an Appellate Court Rule?
The decision by the appellate court can take many forms. The appellate opinion may briefly review the arguments and “affirm” (uphold) your conviction. The appellate court may review the “challenged” rulings made in the lower court and find that the rulings were of such a nature that justice was denied, and that you walk away free of all charges. The appellate court may also rule that an error was made by the trial judge, but that the error was of a type that will cause a “new trial” to be ordered, free of the erroneous prior ruling. This last type of ruling (if the conviction is overturned) occurs more commonly.
Thus, one of two typical results comes out of an appellate decision from your point of view. One, the court of appeals affirms the decision of the trial court. This means the appellate court feels the trial court either “got it right” or was close enough that any error didn’t matter. In the other result, the appellate court disagrees with all or part of the lower court’s decision.
The appellate court may modify a lower court’s verdict, and change it somewhat to better fit with the law as the appellate court sees fit. This is rare in DUI-DWI cases and other criminal law concerns, however.
If the appellate court determines that the trial court did something wrong, and this error was significant, the most common thing they will do is to reverse the conviction and will instruct the trial court that the evidence that was allowed to be heard by the jury was incorrectly allowed into your case. Such a ruling indicates that the trial judge’s error is likely to have had an impact on your jury’s verdict of guilty. In such cases, the appellate court will return the case or remand it with instructions to the lower court that the erroneous rulings not be made at your retrial.
In a smaller number of “reversals” of convictions, the case cannot be retried. This means that you win your freedom from the DUI-DWI charge after the appellate court makes a finding that your rights were so significantly violated that you cannot be tried again.