Pardons for Federal Offenses

Recently, a client wanted to have a serious discussion about having a pardon.  Many times the answer is unless you know the President personally, you don’t have a chance.  However, that is not necessarily the case.  Each year the average President receives XX applications for pardon.  Technically, a presidential pardon is a right granted to the President of the United States by the U.S. Constitution to forgive a person for a crime, or to excuse a person convicted of a crime from punishment.  This power comes from Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of the United States Constitution, which provides: “The President … shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”  The pardon is only good for a conviction in federal court arising out of a federal offense.  Accordingly, the president may not pardon persons convicted for or accused of violating state or local laws.  Through the power of “commutation of sentence,” the president may reduce or completely eliminate the prison sentences being served by persons convicted of federal crimes.

The rules governing petitions for presidential clemency are contained in Title 28, Chapter 1, Part 1 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations.  Under the Rules Governing Petitions for Executive Clemency, shown below, a person is not allowed to apply for a presidential pardon until at least five years after they have fully served any prison term imposed as part of their sentence.

While the Constitution places virtually no limitations on the president’s power to grant clemency, convicted persons who ask the president for clemency are required to meet a strict set of legal guidelines. All requests for presidential clemency for federal offenses are directed to the Office of the U.S. Pardon Attorney of the Department of Justice. The Pardon Attorney prepares a recommendation for the president on each application for presidential clemency, including pardons, commutations of sentences, remissions of fines, and reprieves. However, the president is not obliged to follow, or even consider the recommendations of the Pardon Attorney.

A “commutation of sentence” partially or completely reduces a sentence being served.  It is important to note this does not “erase” a conviction.  Therefore, a person who has received a pardon must still answer “yes” on forms or documents asking if they have ever been convicted of a crime.  Nor does it remove any civil liabilities that might be imposed as a result of a conviction, nor does it alter a person’s immigration or citizenship status.

A “pardon” is a presidential act of forgiving a person for a federal crime and is typically granted only after the convicted person has accepted responsibility for the crime and has demonstrated good conduct for a significant period of time after their conviction or completion of their sentence.  Like a commutation, a pardon does not imply innocence. A pardon may also include forgiveness of fines and restitution imposed as part of the conviction. Unlike a commutation, however, a pardon does remove any potential civil responsibility.  In some, but not all cases, a pardon eliminates the legal grounds for deportation.

When a petition for pardon is granted, the petitioner or his or her attorney shall be notified of such action and the warrant of pardon shall be mailed to the petitioner. When commutation of sentence is granted, the petitioner shall be notified of such action and the warrant of commutation shall be sent to the petitioner through the officer in charge of his or her place of confinement, or directly to the petitioner if he/she is on parole, probation, or supervised release. If you or a loved one has any questions about pardons or other issues involving federal criminal offenses, please contact us at 215-625-4547.