Who Can the President Pardon?
Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states as follows:
The President…shall have the power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.
In general, a pardon is the act of forgiving a crime. A pardon nullifies punishments or other legal consequences of a crime. However, a presidential pardon does not expunge a crime or remedy the past act. In other words, the crime can still be taken into consideration against the wrongdoer (e.g. on a job application or when giving a sentence for a different crime). For example, if the pardoned person is later tried for a similar crime, the pardoned crime may be taken into consideration when giving the sentence for the new crime. The pardon does not blot out the past.
One key thing to keep in mind: Presidential pardons only apply to federal criminal acts against the United States.
So, the president cannot pardon a person for violations of any federal civil laws or state criminal or civil laws. For example, if a person commits armed robbery at a local gas station and is convicted under state law for armed robbery, that person cannot receive a presidential pardon. Why? Because that person committed a state criminal act, not a federal criminal act. However, if that person also robbed a U.S. post office (a federal facility), then he or she could petition the president for a pardon of the robbery at the U.S. post office.
Presidential pardons can be granted anytime after an offense has been committed including before, during, or after a conviction for the offense. If granted before a conviction is given, it prevents any penalties from attaching to the person. If granted after a conviction, it removes the penalties, and restores the person to all his or her civil rights. However, a pardon can never be granted before an offense has been committed – because the president does not have the power to waive the laws.
Furthermore, because the power of the presidential pardon comes directly from the U.S. Constitution, it cannot modified, diminished or altered by any laws passed by Congress, except by an amendment to the Constitution (which is generally very difficult to do). Also, the president has unlimited pardon power, except in cases of impeachment. This means the president can pardon as many individuals as he or she wants for any federal criminal acts against the United States, unless that individual has been impeached by Congress (which is also very rare).
Next, we’ll look at the different types of pardons and reprieves that the President can grant.