The New York criminal appeal process begins at the end of a trial if a person is convicted. Generally, upon conviction, a person in New York has the right to one appeal to a higher court. A person who loses this first appeal may request that the New York Court of Appeals, the highest appeals court in New York, review the case. The Court of Appeals, however, is not required to hear the case.
Therefore this general path from trial to first appeal of right to a request for a discretionary review of the first appeal controls the fate of a person accused and convicted of a crime in New York. New York, however, divides the job of handling criminal trials and criminal appeals among any number of various courts with varying names. Untangling these courts and their confusing, varying names can be difficult even for those familiar with the legal system.
Understanding the appeals process requires understanding how New York arranges both the criminal trial level and criminal appeals courts.
Trial Level Criminal Courts in New York
Criminal trials in New York are conducted in different courts according to the seriousness of the crimes charged. Less serious crimes are called misdemeanors. Misdemeanors are crimes for which the punishment could at most be one year in jail. More serious crimes are called felonies. Felonies are crimes for which more than one year in prison is a possible punishment.
The lower level courts that hear and try misdemeanor cases only are village, town or justice courts, but can also be called a variety of other names. In New York City, for example, the misdemeanor level trial courts are called "Criminal Courts". This confusing name might suggest, for example, that Queens Criminal Court is where all the criminal cases in Queens County are tried. But the truth is that Queens Criminal Court is simply the court where misdemeanor trials in Queens are conducted.
The same is true for Brooklyn Criminal Court and Bronx Criminal Court. Even more confusing is the true name of the the Criminal Court in Manhattan. Since Manhattan is really "New York" County, the true name of Manhattan Criminal Court is New York Criminal Court. New York Criminal Court is not the name of a Court that deals with all of New York State. New York Criminal Court is simply the court that tries misdemeanor cases in Manhattan.
The lowest level courts that try felony cases in New York State are referred to as County Courts or Supreme Courts. That's right - Supreme Court. In New York State the lowest court for felonies is sometimes called Supreme Court.
This is the situation in New York City. For example, a felony trial in Queens County will be held in Queens Supreme Court. A felony trial in Manhattan will be held in New York Supreme Court. This is extremely confusing. Most people would expect that a Court named "New York Supreme Court" would be the highest court in the state. Instead, New York Supreme Court is the lowest, or trial level, court in the state.
All of these misdemeanor and felony courts are where the original criminal trial or guilty plea takes place. A person who is convicted after trial or guilty plea can appeal the conviction or plea to a higher court.
In New York, The Appellate Division, Appellate Term, and certain county courts handle appeals and are the next highest level of court in the New York appeal process. These courts are referred to as the intermediate appellate courts.
The Appellate Division in New York
The Appellate Division handles all felony appeals. If an indictment charges both a felony and misdemeanor then it is also handled by the Appellate Division. The Appellate Division is broken up into four departments. The first department is located in Manhattan; the second department is located in Brooklyn; the third department is located in Albany and the fourth department is located in Rochester.
Each of the departments of the Appellate Division has jurisdiction over specific counties within the state. For example, The Appellate Division, Second Department hears criminal appeals from people convicted in Queens County, Kings County (Brooklyn), and Nassau County, among others. The Appellate Division, First Department, hears criminal appeals from people convicted in New York County and Bronx County. Visit the New York State Criminal Court Website for a complete breakdown of which Appellate Division hears criminal appeals from which counties.
If a person is convicted of a felony, then the first thing to do is to determine what county the conviction occurred in. The appeal is then taken to the appropriate department of the appellate division that covers that county. So, for example, Manhattan (New York County) is located in the first department. Therefore, any conviction of a felony in Manhattan (New York County) must be appealed to the Appellate Division, First Department.
Misdemeanor Appeals - Appellate Terms and County Courts
The appellate terms and certain county courts handle appeals of misdemeanors only. The first and second departments of the Appellate Division each have "appellate terms". The Appellate Term of the first department covers the same geographic area as the Appellate Division, first department, but only handles misdemeanors.
Likewise, the Appellate Term of the second department covers the same geographic area as the Appellate Division, second department but only handles misdemeanors.
If the defendant is convicted of a misdemeanor in a county which is located in the first department of the Appellate Division, then the appeal is to the Appellate Term of the first department. If the defendant is convicted of a misdemeanor in a county which is controlled by the second department of the Appellate Division, then the appeal is to the Appellate Term of the second department.
If a defendant is convicted of a misdemeanor in a county that is located outside the first or second department then the appeal is to the County Court of the county where the conviction occurred.
New York Court of Appeals
The highest appeals court in New York State for criminal appeals is the New York Court of Appeals. No other court can overturn its interpretation of New York law. Even the United States Supreme Court must rely on the New York Court of Appeals for interpretations of New York State law.
Everyone convicted in a trial court has an automatic right to appeal to an intermediate appellate court (like the appellate division, second department, for example).
If your appeal is rejected in any department of the Appellate Division, the Appellate Term or the County Court, you can ask the Court of Appeals for permissionto appeal one last time.
However, the New York Court of Appeals denies most requests for permission to appeal. For most people, then, the first appeal to an Appellate Division, is their one and only chance.
From New York State to the United States Supreme Court
If you manage to get the New York Court of Appeals to hear your case, but you are still unsuccessful, then you can ask for permission to appeal to the United States Supreme Court. (You also could ask the United States Supreme Court to hear your case if the New York Court of Appeals denied your request to appeal.)
As with the Court of Appeals, you must ask the United States Supreme Court for permission to appeal before you can go to that court. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, will take an appeal of a conviction in a state court only if there is a claim that the defendant’s federal constitutional rights were violated in some way. Such appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court are only rarely granted.