What Is a Structural Error in a Federal Criminal Case?
While the United States federal criminal justice system is founded on principles of fairness and due process for the accused, it's still imperfect, in which imperfect people sometimes make errors.
These errors are often marginal and have no impact on the outcome of your trial or your ability to get a fair trial. Other errors might wrongfully affect the outcome and must be corrected on appeal.
But some errors can affect your case on such a foundational level that the only reasonable remedy is overturning the conviction and starting the trial over. We refer to these as "structural errors." If your case is affected by one of these errors, your federal criminal defense attorney must cite these errors on an appeal of your conviction to avert a miscarriage of justice.
Suppose your post-conviction criminal appeal lawyer can demonstrate structural error. In that case, you will be entitled to a new trial. This would be true even if the error were not preserved for appeal by a timely objection during the trial or whether it impacted the case outcome.
Generally, an “error” occurring during a federal criminal trial can be the basis for overturning a conviction only if it was preserved during the trial, by an objection, and raised during the appeal.
However, sometimes, an “unpreserved” error could be used to overturn a conviction if certain conditions are satisfied. These include demonstrating that an error occurred, was plain, and affected the defendant's substantial rights, which means the case outcome would have been different if the error had not been made. This is the “plain error” rule in federal criminal appeal cases. Notably, however, a limited number of unpreserved errors are considered “structural errors.”
It should be noted that the United States Supreme Court has ruled that these errors must substantially affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.
Structural Error - Explained
A structural error refers to a mistake or oversight during a trial that severely impairs its overall fairness or reliability it is considered a constitutional violation. Perhaps a lawyer was allowed to admit a defendant's guilt over this objection. Maybe it can be shown there was a lack of an impartial federal trial judge.
Unlike other errors, such as harmless errors (minor mistakes that don't affect the trial's outcome) or prejudicial errors (errors that affect the verdict but are not constitutional violations), structural errors strike at the heart of the judicial process.
They are fundamental flaws that essentially render the entire trial invalid. Case law has effectively defined structural errors as constitutional errors and errors that "affect the framework within which the trial proceeds."
The doctrine of structural error is essential when there is a significant change in the law after conviction. Since the law changed after the conviction, there was no basis for preserving the error during the trial.
The defense lawyer would not have known about the upcoming change in the law and thus would have also not known to make an objection or raise the issue during the initial appeal.
The structural error doctrine allows a new trial even if the federal criminal defense lawyer cannot prove that the case outcome would have been different but for the error. Notably, structural error cases are legally complex and nuanced.
What Are Some Examples of Structural Errors and Their Implications?
There's no clearly defined set of criteria as to what constitutes a structural error. However, structural errors have been identified at various times as errors that violate a fundamental right, errors that always result in fundamental unfairness, or simply errors whose negative impacts are too challenging to measure.
The result is an ongoing list of violations commonly seen as structural errors. A few common examples are discussed below.
Denial of Counsel at Trial
One of the most glaring examples of a structural error is the absence of counsel during the critical trial stages. The right to legal representation is a cornerstone of the American justice system, and any violation of this right can lead to a structural error. For instance, if a defendant cannot access legal counsel during plea negotiations, this could constitute a structural error.
Denial of the Right to Self-Representation
Conversely to the above, while it's often unwise, defendants have the right to represent themselves in court without an attorney. If a court denies a defendant this right, it's considered a structural error.
Even though self-representation has a higher likelihood of unfair conviction, the justice system considers it a fundamental right with more weight than a fair trial. In other words, you have the right to deny yourself a fair trial if you choose, and if you're not given the choice, it's an error at the fundamental level.
Another form of structural error (a prevalent one) arises from racial bias. Suppose the court demonstrates racial discrimination in its dealings, for example, by excluding jurors based on their race or "packing" the jury with people who are racially biased against the defendant. In that case, this undermines the fundamental fairness of the trial and constitutes a structural error.
Similarly, if the presiding judge in your trial demonstrates bias against you for any reason or has a conflict of interest, this can also be considered a structural error. A judge is expected to remain impartial and unbiased throughout the trial process, and any evidence of bias or conflict of interest can significantly impact the fairness and reliability of the trial.
Failure to Give "Reasonable Doubt" Instructions to the Jury
In criminal cases, the prosecution is burdened to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the court does not adequately instruct the jury on this standard, it undermines the fairness and reliability of the trial itself.
How Can You Challenging Structural Errors on Appeal?
Structural errors are typically identified during the appeals process after being convicted. If you or your attorney suspects a structural error denied you a fair trial, your attorney will present these arguments as part of your appeal. If the appellate court agrees that a structural error occurred:
- The conviction will automatically be reversed. The rationale is that the structural error affects the very framework within which the trial proceeds, and without this framework, no criminal punishment may be regarded as fundamentally fair.
- You will be entitled to a new trial. This is not merely a chance to correct the error but an entirely new opportunity for the defendant to present their case, free from the taint of the original error.
Contact our federal criminal appeals lawyer for a case review for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.