What Are Grounds for Appealing an Excessive Sentence?
Late last year, a trial involving a 2019 truck wreck in Colorado made national news. According to CBS News, the accident involved a truck crashing into stopped traffic while traveling on Colorado’s Interstate 70 near Denver. In the aftermath of the wreck, four people were killed and many others were injured. The truck driver who caused the crash claimed that the wreck happened because his brakes failed. However, it was reported that he had been going 85 miles per hour in a 45 mile per hour zone leading up to the collision and that he had an opportunity to use a runaway truck ramp to avoid hitting other vehicles but failed to use it.
Per ABC News, the trucker’s trial ended in December 2021. He was given a 110-year prison sentence. The reason he received such a lengthy sentence was because prosecutors pursued penalties for each of the 27 charges he was found guilty of because of the wreck. However, after the truck driver was sentenced, there was a nationwide outcry. The outcry didn’t happen because the truck driver was found guilty of causing the deadly wreck, but because many felt the sentence he received was too harsh. While people believed he should serve time for what he did, many felt the length of time he was sentenced to serve was far longer than necessary. Ultimately, the governor of Colorado reduced the sentence to 10 years with the possibility of parole in five years.
While public outcry helped shed a light on this truck driver’s excessive sentence, what about those who are serving excessive sentences and don’t have the benefit of the national spotlight to help get their sentence changed? What options do they have? Who’s fighting for their rights? Is their sentence even the type that would be eligible for an appeal?
Examples of Excessive Sentences
People have received excessive sentences for all kinds of reasons, such as outdated or unjust laws, issues involving evidence, simple mistakes like clerical errors, witness/jury tampering, politics, or flawed people using their power in a corrupt manner. Since excessive sentences happen for a variety of reasons, examples of excessive sentences are wide ranging as well, including:
- Drug Offenses – According to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), since President Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” began in 1971, drug offenses in the U.S. have been over-criminalized, especially in communities of color. The “war on drugs” led to a continued rise in excessive sentences for drug crimes that has lasted to this day. Due to mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, the average time served in federal prison for drug crimes went up 153 percent between 1988 and 2012. In addition, 45 percent of the inmates in federal prison are serving time for drug offenses.
- Three Strikes Offenses – Per EJI, three strikes laws have led to people being sentenced to life in prison for seemingly petty crimes, like shoplifting items such as bread or socks. Three strikes laws began popping up in the U.S. in the early 1990s. They require people who have been convicted of two prior felonies, even if they’re non-violent offenses, to be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison if they are convicted of a third felony (whether it’s a violent or non-violent offense).
- Truth in Sentencing – Following the passing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, some states enacted “Truth in Sentencing” laws that require people serving time to complete at least 85 percent of their sentence before the possibility of parole, per EJI. Other states have even eliminated parole as an option.
- Prior Convictions – According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a man in Texas named Willie James Sauls was sentenced to 45 years in prison for stealing a purse from an elderly woman. He had prior convictions, which was the reason given for why his sentence was so long. Another man in Texas named Larry Dayries, who also had prior convictions for theft and burglary, was given a 70-year sentence for stealing a tuna sandwich from Whole Foods while wielding a knife.
Anyone who believes their sentence or the sentence of a loved one was excessive needs to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney right away. The appeals process can be long, and in some cases, there are statutes of limitations (time limits) for filing an appeal.
Grounds for Appealing an Excessive Sentence
Just because someone believes a sentence is excessive doesn’t necessarily mean that it can be appealed. There are certain criteria that need to be met and steps that must be taken to pursue an appeal. First and foremost, there must be legitimate grounds for an appeal. Grounds is just another way of saying a cause or reason.
In many cases, grounds for appealing an excessive sentence revolve around the proportionality of the sentence in relation to the crime. For example, the reason the truck driver who received the 110-year sentence for the deadly multi-vehicle collision in Colorado had his sentence reduced was not because he wasn’t guilty of causing the wreck. His sentence was reduced because it was considered too harsh in relation to the crime he committed. The trucker’s 10-year sentence is considered fairer in proportion to the crime he committed.
Other examples of grounds for appealing an excessive sentence include:
- Error of Law – One of the clearest ways to explain error of law is by using a child custody case as an example. In child custody cases, it is the judge’s job to make a custody decision that is in a child’s best interests. Generally, there are factors (known as best interest factors) that state law requires a judge to consider before making a custody decision. In this example, one of those factors is whether either of the parents has committed domestic violence. If the judge in this example does not consider evidence that a parent committed domestic violence when making a custody decision, that may be grounds for an appeal due to error of law.
- Error of Facts – Court rulings and sentencing are based on facts that were proven during the trial. If those facts turn out to be clearly wrong, that could be grounds for an appeal due to error of facts. A good example of this is when a witness’s testimony turns out to be a lie.
- Abuse of Discretion – If certain decisions a judge makes during a trial (such as including or excluding evidence or approving or denying a party’s request/motion) are unreasonable or clearly an abuse of his or her power, then that may be grounds for an appeal due to abuse of discretion. An example of this would be if a judge in a child custody case uses the fact that one parent has a bigger home than the other parent as a deciding factor when making the custody decision. Yet that same judge ignores the fact that the parent with the bigger home has a drinking problem when deciding custody.
The above information may not be able to be applied to your specific case. The best way to find out if you have grounds for appealing an excessive sentence is to talk to a criminal defense lawyer about your situation.
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