Felon Disenfranchisement

First, let’s define that term: felon disenfranchisement refers to the removal of felon’s right to vote to vote. In most states, after conviction of a felony, the convicted person loses his or her right to vote, in both federal and state elections. Maine and Vermont are the only states which currently do not remove (disenfranchise) people who have criminal convictions.

Pennsylvania has rather lenient disenfranchisement laws. As a general rule, voting rights are restored automatically after release from prison. Now, the individual still may have to re-register to vote. Some counties perform regular purging of their voter registration for inactive voters after a certain number of years. If you have been convicted of a crime you should have no problem regaining your Pennsylvania voting rights; just register as you would have when you began voting. The unfortunate problem is that some voting personnel are ignorant of the voting laws. If anyone tries to stop you from voting, merely because you have been convicted, inform them of their misperception.

Wyoming is a different story, a felon does not automatically regain their voting rights, and some can never regain their rights. Wyoming felon disenfranchisement was a subject I studied in-depth during my time with the American Civil Liberties Union, so forgive me if I go into a little more depth than you might feel you need.

Wyoming’s voting system and court system are tied together in the state databases. So when an individual is convicted, their voter registration is automatically flagged and removed. After getting out of prison and successfully completing parole, a felon may apply to the Parole Board for the restoration of voting rights. Most county clerk’s offices have a packet of information to assist you with the process. Normally, a person does not need a lawyer to assist them with this process, although some find it helpful. The Parole Board has no discretion in returning rights so long as the individual meets the criteria in the application. A violent felon, or a repeat offender has a more difficult time regaining voting rights and must go through the governor’s office; this is a discretionary decision for the governor.

When convicted of a misdemeanor, you should not lose your voting rights. Again, some personnel may have a misperception and tell you that you cannot vote, but again, merely correct that person. If you are incarcerated for a misdemeanor crime during the time an election is occurring, you may request an absentee ballot and vote that way.

Ex Post Facto Laws

What is an ex post facto law, and what does it have to do with you?

Ex post facto, like most latin phrases, is legalese. Its something lawyers can throw around to make themselves seem brighter. But its also something that is a violation of your constitutional rights. Ex post facto means after the fact. So an ex post facto law is one which is enacted after the fact, or after the action the prosecutor is accusing someone of.

Ex post facto laws, when they fit two criteria, are a violation of your constitutional rights and create an unfair situation for a defendant. The ex post facto clause of the Constitution embodies the theory that criminal sanctions must not be applied retroactively. The two criteria to make an ex post facto law a problem are:

  1. the law must be retrospective, it must apply to events which occurred before the law was enacted
  2. the law must disadvantage the defendant affected by it.

The criteria seem straightforward, but sometimes the law creates confusion. For example, the United States Supreme Court is currently faced with a question as to whether the Federal Sentencing Guidelines can be retroactively applied to a defendant. The retroactive application occurs when a past crime is grouped with a new offense at the higher offense category for purposes of multiple offense sentencing. That is, if a person committed federal fraud in the past, and then commits it again now, the past offense is considered at the new level for the purpose of determining sentences. This can cause some extremely harsh penalties when compared to the penalty from the old law, but has not been declared an ex post facto problem. See how it can get murky?

The 2nd Circuit has found that it is not a problem because the defendant has had fair notice of the grouping and the higher penalties. The 3rd Circuit has determined the opposite because it applies a new rule to an old crime and seems to cause the completed sentence t be increased by a later court at a later date. Due to the circuit split, it is important for the Supreme Court to make a determination.

Personally, I agree with the 3rd and 9th Circuits. The sentences for the old crimes are being retroactively increased, which disadvantages the defendant, and therefore certainly causes an ex post facto problem.

When Should You Plead Guilty?

I had an individual ask me today about a real dilemma he had, that he, unfortunately, solved through his own ignorance and laziness. He was stopped by an officer for a broken taillight, late at night. As is the norm for most nighttime stops, the man was given the roadside sobriety tests. He failed. He was then taken into jail, and blew in the breathalyzer. He decided to stay the night in jail and in the morning was brought to court. Before talking to the judge, the prosecutor showed the man the results of his breathalyzer. He blew a .09, and he plead guilty to Driving Under the Influence.

Now, I understand, you’re scared, you’re tired from spending the night on a cot, and that judge looks awful intimidating to be someone’s grandmother. But do yourself a favor: when they ask how do you plead, ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS  answer , “not guilty.”

You can change your “not guilty” plea at any time. You’re even expected to plead not guilty at that first hearing.

You basically can’t change your “guilty” plea. You have to show, in short, mental incompetence. Either you’re still drunk or high, you don’t speak English, you have an IQ so low that you can’t understand what you’re doing, or something similar. And when you can change your guilty plea, it has to be done in a very short time. Usually ten days.

This individual had no mental handicap. He spoke English. And he waited twelve days before calling me. He is stuck with his guilty plea, even though he had a good chance of getting off. Now, the only options open to him are trying to get a lighter sentence, and trying to expunge his record (because now he has one).

So when should you plead guilty? Certainly not at your first hearing, and maybe never. At the very least, talk to a lawyer before you plead. Talk to multiple lawyers if that helps you. Talk to your friends, and examine all of the evidence the government has against you. Don’t give up your right to due process.