Federal Criminal Appeals After a Plea and Sentence

Pondering an appeal after pleading guilty to a federal crime? Conklin Law Firm understands federal criminal appeals and can help you navigate the complex legal landscape. Your right to appeal isn’t lost but is limited. Contact us now to discuss your options and improve your chances at a successful appeal.

Can You Appeal Your Sentence and Conviction After Pleading Guilty to a Federal Crime?


During trial and arraignment, a criminal defendant has several options; to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest to the charge(s) against them. The effect of each plea has far-reaching consequences that often determine the ultimate punishment. A person who pleads guilty also waives certain rights, including the right to a jury trial and cross-examination of witnesses. This is because a guilty plea is an admission of wrongdoing. It would be pointless to continue the trial as though the defendant’s guilt was still in question. But by pleading guilty, does the defendant also lose their right to challenge the guilty plea?

Generally, those convicted and sentenced for federal crimes by a federal district court judge have the right to challenge their conviction and sentence before the circuit court of appeals. Some of these cases may proceed to the United States Supreme Court before they are finally determined. But if you or your loved one pled guilty to a federal crime, your right to appeal an unfavorable decision, though not lost, becomes limited.

The extent of the limitation may depend on whether your guilty plea was a result of a plea bargain or made independently. We examine these perspectives below to help you learn your options and manage your expectations if you decide to proceed with an appeal in such circumstances.

Appealing a Conviction After a Plea Bargain


If you agreed to a plea deal, it affects your right to challenge your conviction in an appeals court for several reasons. First, accepting a plea bargain means that you have admitted your guilt for the crime you’ve been charged with in exchange for certain benefits from the prosecution. It would be contradictory to challenge a conviction after a voluntary acceptance of guilt. Furthermore, plea agreements often contain terms called appeal waivers that require the defendant to sign away their right to appeal the conviction.

Appeal waivers can be valid and enforceable. If you signed a plea deal containing such terms and you’ve been convicted, it would be challenging, though not impossible, to appeal your conviction and succeed.


Instances Where You Can Appeal Despite an Appeal Waiver

The US Supreme Court in Garza v. Idaho has confirmed that appeal waivers in plea agreements do not end a defendant’s appeal rights. Waivers only reduce the number/types of appellate claims a dissatisfied defendant can make depending on the language used in the plea agreement.

The court further explained some of the circumstances in which a defendant may exercise their right to appeal despite a waiver as follows:

  • An appeal waiver based on a plea agreement can only affect the claims specified in the agreement, not those outside its scope. A defendant can file an appeal if the subject of the appeal is outside the scope of the waiver.
  • Plea bargains are contracts between the defendant and the prosecution/government. If the prosecution breaches the plea deal, the defendant can appeal any claim, including those previously waived.
  • Waivers must be made ‘knowingly and voluntarily’ with a complete understanding of the consequences. A defendant could challenge the validity of a waiver in appeal if these factors did not exist when they agreed to the waiver.
  • Criminal defendants have the right to effective assistance of trial counsel based on the Sixth Amendment. A defendant could file an appeal despite a waiver if denied this right during the trial.

There may be other circumstances that would allow a defendant to appeal their case after agreeing to an appeal waiver. You can consult an experienced criminal appeals lawyer to learn if any apply to your case.

For those whose trial is ongoing, seeking legal advice from criminal defense lawyers before accepting a plea deal is crucial. They understand the implications of plea bargains and can assist you in making an informed decision depending on your case.

Appealing a Conviction After an Independent Guilty Plea


Sometimes a defendant may plead guilty to a criminal charge without the benefit of a negotiated plea bargain. An independent guilty plea also reduces the scope of your right to challenge your conviction at the appellate courts based on the usual grounds for appeal, such as procedural errors.

Having admitted guilt, you may be unable to challenge your conviction if the claim on appeal contradicts your previous admission of guilt. But you might be able to challenge the validity of the guilty plea that led to your conviction. As stated above, a valid plea must be given knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. You may be able to appeal if you show that your guilty plea did not meet these criteria.

According to the US Supreme Court in Class v. United States, you can also file a direct appeal in a federal appellate court if the law upon which your conviction was based is unconstitutional. You can confirm from your federal appeals attorney if any of these factors are applicable to your case.

Can You Appeal Your Sentence After a Guilty Plea?

Appealing a sentence is different from appealing the conviction itself. Such appeals challenge the fairness or legality of the sentence issued by the court.

Generally, a defendant can appeal a sentence regardless of whether or not they pleaded guilty. You can appeal a sentence if:

  • The trial judge failed to follow federal sentencing laws or guidelines.
  • The sentence is unconstitutional.
  • The sentence is above the statutory maximum for the crime charged.

But like your right to appeal your conviction, your right to appeal your sentence may be limited if you already agreed to a plea deal containing a sentencing appeal waiver. 

Sentencing Appeal Waiver

A sentencing appeal waiver, like the appeal waiver discussed earlier, is a ‘clause’ within a plea agreement that states that the criminal defendant abandons their right to appeal the sentence that the trial court issues. These waivers are usually included when the defendant has agreed with the prosecution on a specific sentence during the plea bargaining process. They are valid and enforceable before any federal court of appeals unless found unconstitutional or illegal.  The success of the appeal will likely depend on the exact words used in the waiver.

If the waiver is drafted using broad language that requires the defendant to abandon all rights to appeal the sentence, it will probably be an unsuccessful appeal. On the other hand, the sentencing waiver language may be restricted in its application. For instance, it could state that the defendant would only appeal a sentence that goes beyond the prosecutor’s agreement. In such cases, you can file an appeal if the judge exceeds the agreed minimum sentence.

Get Help With Your Federal Criminal Appeals at Conklin Law Firm

It is difficult to succeed with a federal criminal appeal, especially when a guilty plea has limited your options. It is essential that you do all you can to improve your chances regardless of the limitations of your case. You can start by getting an experienced federal criminal appeals lawyer with outstanding results to represent you throughout the federal criminal appeals process.

At Conklin Law Firm, our years of experience with criminal appeals and post-conviction reliefs like habeas corpus allow us to provide top-tier legal representation for our clients who have been convicted or received an unfavorable sentence. We have successfully represented our clients at the Court of Appeals Atlanta and federal appellate courts and helped turn the tides in their favor. We can do the same for you if you contact us. It is worth noting that you may have a limited time to appeal your case after your conviction, so get in touch with us as soon as possible to get started.

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