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Coram Nobis – one way to clear an old conviction

Welcome to Lawlor & Englert’s new blog.  We’ll be using this space to keep you updated about our firm’s latest successes and to post some longer articles about criminal law.  For our first post, we’re going to be discussing the Writ of Error Coram Nobis, or as it is more commonly called a coram nobis proceeding.

Coram nobis sounds like a confusing Latin legal term, but is really straightforward.  It is a way for someone with an older conviction to reopen the case.  Not every old case can be reopened through a coram nobis. In order to be eligible for coram nobis, a case must meet two requirements.

The first requirement is that there be a legal error that affects the validity of either the conviction or the sentence.  This typically, but not always, is in the form of what is know as ineffective assistance of counsel, or a mistake made by a previous attorney. This can take the form of failing to properly explain a guilty plea’s consequences to a client; failing to advise a client about the immigration consequences of a conviction; failing to file a Motion for Reconsideration of Sentence; or providing inadequate representation during a trial.

The second requirement is that there be a significant collateral consequence resulting from the conviction.  Not all consequences are found by appeals courts to be “significant”, but some that are include: facing deportation due to the conviction; having a later sentence enhanced due to the existence of the prior conviction; and the denial of economic opportunities due to the old conviction.

Two examples from recent Lawlor & Englert victories illustrate how a coram nobis case works.  In the first case, the client was facing charges in federal court for possessing a firearm after having been convicted of a felony.  Due to having three prior serious drug crimes on his record, the client was facing a mandatory sentence of a least fifteen years in prison and a maximum sentence of life.  Michael Lawlor and Andrew Szekely reviewed the client’s prior convictions and found a crucial error in one of the guilty pleas.  The Court agreed that the prior conviction had a serious error and vacated the prior conviction.  When the client was later sentenced in federal court he received a sentence of eight years.

In another recent coram nobis victory, Mr. Szekely represented a client who pled guilty to a theft charge in 1988.  Since that time, the client had become a successful businessman, but was unable to apply for government contracts due to the existence of the conviction.  Upon review of the file, Mr. Szekely found that the client’s earlier attorney had not filed a Motion for Reconsideration of Sentence.  Had the prior attorney done that, the client could have asked the Court for probation before judgment in order to clear his record.  The Court agreed that the prior attorney failed to properly represent the client by not filing the Motion for Reconsideration of Sentence and granted the client the right to file one.  The Court later granted probation before judgment therefore allowing the client to state that he had no criminal record.

As these examples show, there are times when a prior conviction can cause serious problems for someone, but can also be reopened.  Although not all old cases are eligible for this sort of relief, a good many are.  The attorneys at Lawlor & Englert can meet with you to review your old conviction and see whether you are eligible for coram nobis relief.

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