Low Rates of Misdemeanor Appeals Imperil the Poor and Minorities: Study

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Grimes County Courthouse, Anderson, Tx . Photo by Patrick Feller via Flickr

Why do so few individuals convicted of misdemeanors appeal the judgments against them?

According to a study forthcoming in the Boston University Law Review, a “vanishingly small” number of misdemeanor convictions are ever appealed, compared to the appeals for felonies─ even though misdemeanor cases are roughly three times more common than felony cases.

An examination of data collected by the National Center for State Courts in its Survey of State Court Criminal appeals, as well as unpublished aggregate data about misdemeanor cases in state trial courts, found that only eight out of every 10,000 misdemeanor were reviewed by appellate Courts.

The primary data source was drawn from a nationally representative probability sample of the decisions entered in 2010 in direct criminal appeals by every state appellate court with criminal jurisdiction.

“(Our) findings suggest that the greatest need for more judicial attention is in cases involving charges for the lowest-level crime ending in guilty plea or dismissal,” wrote the authors, Nancy J. King of Vanderbilt University Law School, and Michael Heise of Cornell Law School.

There has been an explosion of new research on misdemeanor enforcement’s “huge impact on society, particularly on poor and minority communities,” the study said. “For defendants charged with misdemeanors and their families, the hardship of fulfilling a misdemeanor sentence pales in comparison to consequences of the process itself.”

The authors said their data represented only a partial survey of how misdemeanors were adjudicated around the U.S. Nevertheless, they added, it helped to fill one of many “gaping holes” in knowledge about the misdemeanor process.

They applied their findings to the estimated 13.2 million misdemeanor cases filed in 2016, of which about 5.8 million resulted in convictions in state courts to come up with the low rate of requests for review.

Although misdemeanor cases have lower penalties, convictions can have serious impacts, ranging from the loss of driver’s licenses and voting rights and reduced employment possibilities to deportation (in the case of undocumented immigrants).

“And when a defendant is unable to pay fines, fees, and costs, one of these ‘minor’ convictions can lead to debilitating debt,” the study said.

The reasons for the small rate of misdemeanor appeals, the study said, include structural differences among state courts (some deny misdemeanor defendants the right of appeal or only grant it on discretion) and the lack of adequate defense counsel.

There is no reason to think that the likelihood of error in misdemeanor cases, which should generate an appeal, is any less than in felony cases, the authors argued, adding that in some cases the chances of error could be even higher.

“Error rates in misdemeanor cases are likely worse than in felony cases, not better,” the study said.

“The sources of potential error begin with policing. Research has exposed, for example, how innocent people have been charged with drug and weapons misdemeanors based on inaccurate information from faulty forensic field tests.”

Also, police “arrest quotas have systematically produced baseless arrests for ‘order maintenance’ misdemeanors, such as trespassing, loitering, failing to obey an officer, or ‘being a rogue and vagabond,” the study said.

To fix such issues and improve judicial regulation of state misdemeanor cases, the authors proposed making available “opportunities to challenge the legality of misdemeanor procedures” through means such as lawsuits and class actions, as opposed to direct appeals.

Download the full research paper here.

This summary was prepared by TCR news intern Yotam Ponte.