Even After Receiving Clemency, an Inmate Remains in Prison Because of a Conflict Between State and Federal Laws

Federal Prisons sealOnce a person has been convicted of a criminal offense and sentenced to a term of incarceration, they have numerous possible legal avenues to avoid serving the entire length of the sentence. The most common methods, aside from appeals and habeas corpus petitions, are parole and other forms of early release. Clemency, which occurs when the president or governor either commutes the sentence or pardons the offense, is a far less common outcome, but it has many interesting legal ramifications. In the last few months of his second term in office, President Obama commuted the sentences of several hundred nonviolent drug offenders. While this resulted in many early releases, at least one person has remained in prison because of a conflict between federal and state jurisdiction.

Clemency can take two main forms. A “pardon” essentially absolves a person of guilt for a particular offense, or in connection with a particular act or incident. If no prosecution has occurred, a pardon prevents it from occurring at any point in the future. If a prosecution is already underway, or a person has already been convicted, a pardon either halts the prosecution or wipes out the conviction. A “commutation” merely shortens a person’s term of incarceration without wiping out the conviction.

The power to grant clemency in federal criminal cases is vested in the President of the United States. This power only extends to criminal cases under the jurisdiction of the federal court system. State governors have sole authority over clemency in state criminal cases. In cases that involve both federal and state charges, this could mean that clemency by one executive, such as the President, does not resolve the entire case. Intersections between state and federal law are particularly likely in drug-related criminal cases, since both federal and state law enforcement take an active interest in enforcing drug laws.

The inmate mentioned above was convicted in the late 1990s on federal counts of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, and importing cocaine hydrochloride. See 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(2), 846, 952; 18 U.S.C. § 2. She was sentenced to 22 years in prison and served much of that time at facilities in Texas. President Obama commuted her sentence in 2016 after she had served 13 years. She is now technically scheduled for release in June 2017 from her current facility in Alabama, but federal prison officials have not begun the usual process of preparing her for release, such as moving her to a halfway house.

Prosecutors in Martin County, Florida have placed a detainer that prevents the inmate’s release from custody. The federal drug charges led Florida prosecutors to charge her with probation violations because of prior state-level convictions. Martin County reportedly plans to take custody of her upon her release from federal prison in June. They will then ask a judge to determine “if she owes the state more time behind bars.” Because of the system of dual sovereignty between the states and the federal government, this does not violate the Sixth Amendment’s “double jeopardy” clause. The federal government has no jurisdiction at all over the disposition of the probation violation charges.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

Michael J. Brown, a board-certified drug crime attorney, defends people in West Texas against state and federal charges. To schedule a confidential consultation with a knowledgeable and experienced criminal justice advocate, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

Man Serving Life Sentence for Drug Conviction Seeks Release, or a Reduction in Sentence, After 27 Years Behind Bars, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, December 23, 2015

Habeas Corpus Petition in Infamous Texas Criminal Case Asserts “Actual Innocence”, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 30, 2015

Clemency, Sentencing Reforms Offer Hope to Thousands of Nonviolent Drug Offenders Currently in Prison, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 23, 2014

Photo credit: U.S. Federal Government; Pbroks13 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.