What Legal Options Do You Have After a Federal Conviction?
Being convicted of a federal crime can have severe and long-lasting consequences. However, there are legal options available that may help reduce your sentence or overturn your conviction. This article provides an overview of steps you can take after a federal conviction.
Appeal Your Conviction
One of the most common legal options after a conviction is to file an appeal. This involves asking a higher court to review your case and determine if any legal errors occurred during your trial or sentencing.
To appeal a federal conviction, you must file a notice of appeal within 14 days after the entry of judgment. Your attorney will handle this process. On appeal, your attorney will argue that errors of law occurred, such as:
- Improper jury instructions
- Prosecutorial misconduct
- Incorrect application of sentencing guidelines
- Violation of your constitutional rights
If the appellate court finds harmful legal errors occurred, it may order a new trial, re-sentencing, or overturn your conviction. However, appeals rarely result in a conviction being completely overturned.
Request a Sentence Reduction
Another option is to request a sentence reduction, also known as a “sentence modification.” This involves asking the court to reduce your term of imprisonment. There are a few ways you can do this:
- File a motion for compassionate release – You can file this motion if you have “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances, such as a terminal illness. The court can grant early release if it finds you are not a danger to society.
- Request a sentence reduction for substantial assistance – If you provided “substantial assistance” to prosecutors, such as testifying against co-defendants, the court may reduce your sentence as a reward. The prosecutors must file a motion on your behalf.
- File a retroactive sentence reduction motion – If the Sentencing Commission lowers the sentencing guidelines for your crime, you may qualify for a reduced sentence. Your attorney can file a motion to reduce your sentence per the new guidelines.
The court has broad discretion in deciding sentence reduction motions. Unfortunately, sentence reductions are hard to obtain and are not granted frequently.
Clemency is when the President or Governor pardons your crime or commutes (reduces) your sentence. It is essentially a showing of mercy or forgiveness.
You can request clemency by submitting a petition to the Office of the Pardon Attorney. This involves describing your rehabilitation efforts, remorse, and plans to contribute to society if released. Support letters from friends, family, employers can help demonstrate you deserve clemency.
Clemency is very rare – only a fraction of petitions are approved. The President and state Governors receive thousands of clemency requests each year. However, clemency remains an option if you have a compelling case.
File “Habeas Corpus” Motion
After exhausting your appeals, you can file a habeas corpus petition as a “last resort” to challenge your conviction.
A habeas motion alleges your conviction violated the Constitution or involved grave legal errors. For example, you could claim:
- Ineffective assistance of counsel
- Prosecutorial misconduct
- Actual innocence
- Due process violations
The court will order a new trial if it finds constitutional violations that prejudiced your case. However, habeas relief is extremely limited – most petitions are denied.
You must file the habeas motion within 1 year of your conviction becoming final. This deadline is strict, with few exceptions.
Seek a Presidential Pardon
The President has power under the Constitution to grant pardons “for offenses against the United States.” A presidential pardon forgives your crime and restores certain rights, such as voting.
To obtain a presidential pardon, you must apply through the Office of the Pardon Attorney. This involves a rigorous vetting process that examines your rehabilitation, need for relief, and more. Presidential pardons are very rare.
A pardon does not expunge your conviction or imply innocence. But it shows your offense is forgiven. A pardon can help restore rights, remove barriers to jobs, and ease the stigma of a conviction.
Having a federal conviction overturned or sentence reduced is very challenging. But taking legal steps to fight your conviction or reduce your punishment is better than simply giving up. With an attorney’s help, you may identify options to lessen the long-term burden of a federal conviction.