How to Get a Case Dismissed After Conviction

You might be able to get a criminal conviction set aside or dismissed through a successful appeal, deferred adjudication program, or expungement.

By , Attorney (UC Law San Francisco)
Updated January 22, 2024

In rare cases, a conviction isn't the end of a criminal case. A convicted defendant might be able to challenge the conviction by filing an appeal or having a guilty plea or conviction expunged or set aside and dismissed after completing a deferred disposition program.

Benefits of Getting a Case Dismissed After Conviction

The consequences of a criminal conviction can extend far beyond having to serve a jail sentence or pay a fine. A mistake in your past can negatively impact your future. Getting your case dismissed after a plea or conviction can help you:

  • secure a good job with the opportunity for advancement
  • get accepted into college or graduate school
  • qualify for public assistance and housing
  • rent a desirable apartment or get a mortgage, and
  • reduce the stress and stigma of living with a criminal conviction.

A criminal record is a barrier to employment, housing, and sometimes social acceptance. Getting a case dismissed after trial can help you rebuild your life and stay out of trouble in the future.

Appealing Your Conviction

A person found guilty at trial has a right to appeal the conviction and sentence. People who have pled guilty or no contest typically have a limited right to appeal the validity of the plea and sentence. An appellate court doesn't hear new evidence or decide the facts of the case. Instead, the appellate court decides if any legal errors changed the outcome of the case in the lower court.

A few examples of common grounds (reasons) for filing appeals include:

  • the trial judge admitted improper evidence
  • the trial judge made an incorrect legal ruling
  • there was insufficient evidence to support the conviction
  • the defense attorney provided ineffective assistance of counsel, and
  • the prosecutor committed misconduct.

Appeals are tough to win. You have to prove that the court made an error and that the error affected the outcome of the case.

If your appeal is successful, the appellate court will usually send the case back to the lower court (remand it) and order the trial court to correct the error. Sometimes this results in a new trial or a new sentence. Occasionally this leads to the case being dismissed.

For example, let's say you file a motion to suppress evidence based on an unlawful search of your car that leads to a weapons charge. You go to trial and lose. You file an appeal and argue that the judge should have granted your motion to suppress based on the Fourth Amendment. If the appellate court agrees with you, the court will reverse the lower court's ruling and grant your motion to suppress the evidence. The prosecution will have no choice but to dismiss the case without any admissible evidence to prove the charges against you.

If the appeals court affirms the lower court's ruling on the motion, the case ends, unless you appeal to a higher court.

Completing a Deferred Adjudication Program

Many states have deferred adjudication programs, sometimes called "deferred entry of judgment" (DEJ), "adjournment in contemplation of dismissal" (ACOD), or "probation before judgment" (PBJ). The names of the programs and how they are administered vary from state to state.

Unlike pretrial diversion programs, deferred adjudication typically requires a plea, admission, or finding of guilt. Then the judge puts off sentencing (defers entry of judgment) and orders you to comply with certain conditions, such as staying out of trouble and completing drug treatment or other counseling. If you abide by the terms of the program, the judge vacates your plea and dismisses the case. If you don't abide by the terms, the judge enters judgment and sentences you.

Expunging Your Conviction

If you've been convicted of a crime, you still might have a chance to clear (expunge) your record. Nearly all states offer some type of record relief though the law varies significantly from state to state. Some states limit relief to a few non-violent offenses. A growing number of states, however, allow people who have completed their sentence and stayed out of trouble to expunge nearly all felony convictions.

Learn more about the expungement and sealing of adult and juvenile court records.

Talk to a Lawyer

A criminal charge or conviction can have serious and lasting consequences. A criminal defense attorney can answer your questions and protect your rights before and after conviction. Talk to a lawyer as soon as possible. You don't want to miss the deadline to appeal your conviction or the opportunity to participate in a deferred adjudication or clean slate (expungement) program. A lawyer can also walk you through any potential downsides of pursuing a dismissal after conviction.

Learn more about getting a criminal case dismissed before a plea or trial.

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