A pardon is a governmental decision to absolve an individual for a criminal conviction, often times freeing him from all or part of the punishment imposed at sentencing. Pardons are typically granted by the President, or by individual state governors, usually to absolve individuals, but may be granted, in certain circumstances, for groups of people. Federal pardons are granted by the President of the United States, and each state’s law dictates with whom the power to grant state pardons lies. To explore this concept, consider the following pardon definition.

Definition of Pardon

  1. noun. The forgiveness of an offense
  2. noun. The release from penalty for an offense
  3. verb. To make an allowance or to excuse from an offense
  4. verb. To release a person from liability for an offense

Origin    1250-1300        Middle English


What is a Pardon

A pardon is an official forgiveness, or release from liability for a criminal offense. Once granted, a pardon eliminates the punishment handed down by the court, though it normally does not affect any prison time already served. A pardon also makes it possible for the pardoned individual to clear his name in whatever consequences may occur as a result of the criminal charges. It does not, however, wipe out the fact that the individual was guilty, or expunge the crime from the individual’s criminal record. While a pardon may be granted at the discretion of the President and state governors, it is not a constitutional right afforded to citizens of the United States.

Types of Pardon

There are different types of pardons that may be granted, both at the federal and state level. The type used depends on the circumstances surrounding the issue. The four primary types of pardon include:

  • Full – absolves an individual of the conviction and all consequences of the crime, unconditionally.
  • Absolute – absolution granted to an individual without any conditions.
  • Partial – absolves an individual from only part of the punishment or consequences of the crime for which he was convicted.
  • Conditional – given with certain specific conditions that must be fulfilled by the individual seeking the pardon, before the pardon would go into effect. Other conditions may include conditions or acts after the pardon is granted in order to keep the pardon from becoming void.

Example of Conditional Pardon

Randolph has spent 3 years of a 25-year sentence for robbing a bank. It has always been known that Randolph was not the mastermind of a string of bank robberies, and authorities are still seeking that individual. Randolph is granted a conditional pardon which will only become effective after he has helped authorities locate and prosecute the mastermind. In addition, Randolph’s pardon specifies that, once he has been released, he must not break any laws, or his pardon will be void, and he will be returned to prison.

What a Pardon Does

A pardon does not imply that the individual is innocent of the crime for which he has been convicted, nor does it expunge his record, or absolve him of any civil consequences he may face. A pardon does have the effect of restoring the individuals civil rights.

For example, an individual receiving a pardon for his conviction for murdering his wife may still be sued by her family in a civil lawsuit. Because the pardon does not imply that the individual is “innocent,” the civil court may use the burden of proof that a preponderance of the evidence makes it likely that he caused the wife’s death, and therefore the family’s loss.

A pardon typically restores an individual’s rights to:

  • Vote
  • Run for or hold a position in a public office
  • Serve on a jury
  • Not be deported if the crime was a deportable offense

A Pardon’s Effect on Gun Rights

A pardon does not automatically restore an individual’s right to own, possess, or carry a firearm. Each state has laws that specify when, and under what conditions an individual convicted of a felony may have his rights to possess a firearm restored. This is usually a separate issue from obtaining a pardon, and in some cases, such right may never be restored. For example, an individual with more than one felony conviction can never have his gun rights restored in some states.

Limits on Pardons

Presidential pardoning power is limited only by the U.S. Constitution, and gubernatorial pardoning power is limited only by individual state constitutions. Power to grant pardons can only be limited by an actual amendment to the constitution by which it is governed. It is true that some states have created procedural rules specifying when pardons may be granted, and how to apply, but any such rules that would limit the governor’s power to grant a pardon would likely be unconstitutional.

In general, there are certain permissible limits on pardons, including:

  • Offenses Against the State – power to grant a pardon only applies to offenses committed against the state or country. The President and Governors do not have the authority to pardon municipal convictions. The city’s mayor, if given authority by city law, must pardon municipal offenses.
  • One Pardon – an individual cannot be pardoned more than once unless a State Supreme Court approves of the action.
  • Post Conviction Act – a pardon cannot be granted until the individual has been convicted in court.
  • Ineligible Crimes – in most states, pardons may not be granted for impeachment, treason, or to prisoners on death row.

How to Get a Pardon

A pardon does not occur automatically, but must be applied for at the appropriate level of government. An individual requesting a pardon does not need to hire an attorney to assist in the case. The process of applying for a pardon varies by jurisdiction, and each state, as well as the federal government, has specific statutes that spell out the process. In any case, the first step to requesting a pardon is to determining whether the individual is eligible by verifying that the crime committed is not barred from pardon.

If eligible, the offender must then complete an application provided by the jurisdiction in which the conviction occurred. For state pardons, these applications are usually available from the Secretary of State’s office. The completed application must be returned to the office of the governor of that state, along with any required documentation, such as a certificate of rehabilitation, employment record, or other items.

Application for Federal Pardon

Applications for pardon for federal convictions are granted by the Department of Justice, Office of the Pardon Attorney. This can be a complex process, though specific instructions, as well as the required application are available on the Justice Department’s website.

Last Minute Pardon Granted by California Governor

In 2011, Arnold Schwarzenegger granted Esteban Nunez a partial pardon on his last day as governor of the state of California. The Governor reduced the man’s 16-year prison sentence for the brutal crime of stabbing Luis Santos through the heart in the street. Nunez was charged with murder, and entered into a plea agreement for manslaughter.

The victim’s parents attempted to block the last-minute pardon by claiming that the Governor failed to notify them in advance so that they could oppose. The pardon came with plenty of controversy, as Nunez was the son of Schwarzenegger’s political ally, former Speaker of the California Assembly, Fabian Nunez.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.