Every jurisdiction has a court of appeals, so winning or losing at trial need not be the last word. But an appeals court is a different battleground than a trial court. An appellant has to show a panel of really smart judges that the one in your case messed up so badly that he or she needs to be reversed. It’s a tough row to hoe. There’s not a lot of motion play. No do-overs. There’s an appellate brief, a response and a reply, all on a very strict timeline. You’re not likely to present new evidence or use your charisma to win at oral argument. The rules of procedure are different. The standards for deciding a case are different. Even the document font size and formatting are different. So even when you’ve been brilliant as a self-represented litigant at trial, you’ll be forgiven for getting a lawyer to handle your appeal.
The Court of Appeals Giveth
That’s what Detrice Garmon did when a judge tossed out her case against Los Angeles County. LA prosecutors brought multiple murder charges against her son, Durray Garmon, for a 2006 gang-related shooting. Though police found fingerprints in the car for everybody under the sun except Durray, they claimed he’d confessed to stealing and driving it in a drive-by shooting. Detrice provided an alibi, swearing that Durray was at home with her at the time of the shooting. Detrice was facing surgery for a brain tumor as the trial approached.
To preserve her testimony in case things went bad under the knife, she asked to be deposed as a witness. After gaining permission to review records related to her tumor, prosecutors agreed. But prosecutors used that permission to gain access to her entire medical record, telling the hospital that Detrice herself was the murder victim. They used her medical history to undermine her testimony at trial. Durray was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Furious that her own testimony had been used against her son, Detrice filed a pro se complaint against Los Angeles County and the district attorney’s office. But government officials enjoy immunity from civil liability, so the suit was dismissed in 2010.
It was dismissed with prejudice, which meant Detrice was not allowed to correct the claim and refile it. With help from a team of lawyers, Detrice appealed the dismissal of her case. Earlier this month, the federal appeals court for central California ruled in her favor. The court found that misrepresentations of the sort used by LA prosecutors were not immune to liability, even when clearly done in the course of government business. So Detrice is going back to trial with an amended complaint, and hopefully a judge more willing to hear it.
The Court of Appeals Taketh Away
After beating a speeding ticket in the Madison County circuit court, Christopher Geiler handled his own appeal when the small Illinois city that cited him wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. In 2014, Christopher got busted doing 80 in a 65 mph zone by a Troy, Illinois policeman. His speeding ticket reached the Madison County clerk’s office four days later, and Christopher fought it. He’d found a state supreme court rule requiring tickets to be mailed or hand-delivered to the clerk’s office within 48 hours. His ticket had been hand-delivered late.
Christopher had done his discovery on the clerk’s office. He came to trial with 25 other City of Troy citations that had arrived at the clerk’s office late. The judge found the city’s late filing of citations to be a “clear and consistent violation of [Supreme Court] Rule 552 and not an inadvertent action.” She dismissed Christopher’s speeding ticket. The city appealed the case. Christopher, representing himself, won at the Illinois court of appeals. The state’s attorney general got involved at that point and appealed to the state supreme court. Christopher represented himself again. Surprisingly, the state’s top judges scheduled oral argument in the case. They wanted to hear directly from Christopher.
Specifically, they wanted to know whether and how he’d been harmed by the Troy police department’s failure to get his citation to the clerk on time. Christopher didn’t have a good answer for that. So earlier this month, the state supreme court reversed the court of appeals and sent Christopher’s speeding ticket back to Madison County with instructions to give the City of Troy its money. While they complimented Christopher for handling himself so well in their court, they said dismissing his ticket was too harsh a consequence for the city’s rule violation, unless he was harmed by the delay. So Christopher will pay his speeding ticket, and potentially a mountain of court costs for putting up such a fight.
Win or lose, we celebrate self-represented litigants. Hats off to Detrice Garmon and Christopher Geiler! Have you reversed a loss or defended a win at the appeals court? Different ballgame, isn’t it? Share in the comments below.