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Interlocutory Appeals

Interlocutory Appeals and the Collateral Order Doctrine

If a federal court rules against you—for example, in convicting you of a crime—you have the legal right to appeal that decision. As a general rule, court cases cannot be appealed until the entire case is concluded—in other words, when all decisions and rulings have been rendered.

Interlocutory Appeals and the Collateral Order Doctrine
An interlocutory appeal in a federal criminal case is an appeal issued during the litigation.

However, there are situations when the defense may wish to appeal a specific order issued within the case because that order may negatively impact other aspects of the case.

In some instances, you may be able to file an interlocutory appeal, effectively pausing the trial until a higher court can consider that specific ruling.

The term “interlocutory” indicates a lack of finality. Simply put, an interlocutory appeal is an appeal of a non-final order issued during the litigation. The collateral order doctrine sets the rules for such appeals.

Notably, interlocutory appeals are incredibly uncommon (rare, in fact). Some standard questions must be answered affirmatively to determine whether the collateral order exception to res judicata makes such an appeal possible, such as the following.

  • Did the order conclusively determine the disputed question?
  • Did the order resolve an issue completely separate from the merits of the action?
  • Is the order effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment?

In the federal criminal justice system, a defendant must wait until the final judgment of conviction before they can begin the appeals process. The federal courts will not typically hear interlocutory appeals, which are appeals filed before final judgment.

The appeals process in a criminal case begins when a defendant files a notice of appeal within 14 days of the judgment. While seemingly a minor detail, timing the notice of appeal is a crucial step.  Federal courts have denied defendants the opportunity to appeal convictions when the notice of appeal was filed late.

What is an Interlocutory Appeal? 

Unlike a standard appeal, which is typically filed after a case has reached its conclusion, an interlocutory appeal is initiated before the final judgment.

What is an Interlocutory Appeal?

This allows a higher court to review specific aspects of a case while it is ongoing. It is an instrumental tool that can address critical issues that have the potential to impact the overall course of the trial. The key difference between standard and interlocutory appeals lies in their timing and purpose.

Traditional appeals aim to challenge the verdict post-trial. In contrast, interlocutory appeals seek to correct possible errors or clarify uncertainties during the trial, thereby ensuring the integrity of the judicial process.

Since appeals, in general, are not allowed before the conclusion of the case, an interlocutory appeal is considered an exception to this rule.

To convince the courts to allow an interlocutory appeal, your attorney must successfully argue that the ruling invites a disagreement about the legal interpretation of a particular aspect of the case or that a ruling in the other direction might have hastened the trial's conclusion. Both the lower and higher courts must also agree to the appeal.

What is an Example of How Interlocutory Appeals Works?

Let's consider a scenario where the client is charged with multiple counts of fraud and embezzlement. During pre-trial proceedings, the defense attorney files a motion to suppress specific evidence because it was obtained unlawfully, infringing on the client's Fourth Amendment rights.

However, the trial judge denied this motion, ruling that the evidence could be presented during the trial. The defense attorney firmly believes that including this evidence would significantly prejudice the case against their client and potentially lead to an unjust conviction.

In such a situation, the defense attorney may choose to file an interlocutory appeal. This appeal would challenge the judge's decision to allow the disputed evidence, seeking an immediate review by a higher court before the trial proceeds further.

The aim would be to have the higher court overturn the trial judge's decision, thereby excluding the evidence from the trial.

What is the Collateral Order Doctrine?

Peeling away another layer of the onion, the collateral order doctrine relates to interlocutory appeals in dealing with the immediate appeal of temporary orders. Generally speaking, only final orders in a court case are appealable, but there are cases when the order is "collateral" to the rest of the case.

The collateral order doctrine serves as an exception by allowing the parties to appeal an order immediately, even when it is not final if it meets certain conditions. These conditions are:

  • The order must be conclusive;
  • The order must resolve important questions separate from the case's merits;
  • The order must be effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment. In other words, once a ruling is issued on this part of the case, it can't be challenged even if the rest goes into appeal.

To illustrate, suppose you're playing a board game, and a rule dispute arises that, if not resolved, could unfairly impact the game's outcome. Instead of waiting until the game ends to address the dispute, you decide to pause and resolve it immediately (collateral order doctrine).

Simply put, the collateral order doctrine is an exception to the general rule against allowing interlocutory appeals, which, as noted, are appeals on a temporary order issued during the course of litigation. Interlocutory decisions are appealable under the collateral order doctrine if they satisfy certain conditions.

What is Some Practical Advice?

If you're considering filing an interlocutory appeal or dealing with a situation where the collateral order doctrine may be applicable, here are some tips:

  • Follow the Advice of Your Attorney: Interlocutory appeals are complicated and, honestly, rarely upheld. Only a skilled federal criminal defense attorney will understand these complexities and know whether filing one is in your best interests.
  • Consider the Timing: Filing an interlocutory appeal can delay the progress of a trial. Ensure that the issue at hand is significant enough to warrant this delay.
  • Understand the Risks: There's always a risk that the higher court may not agree with your perspective on the issue. This could potentially impact your case negatively.

You can contact our federal criminal defense lawyers for a case review by phone or through the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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