On Presidential Pardons

America exhibits contradictions now and then, and sometimes you wonder at the time and effort the bureaucracy spends in sticking to a written rule with no regard for or the lack of common sense to the process. The other day I was going to Florida and saw on the in-flight magazine how one could fold a US currency note and make a paper fighter plane with it. On the net you can peruse umpteen sites telling you how you can make pictures of the twin towers with US currency notes, and in amusement parks you can see machines where you put in a penny into a die casting machine and get some funny flattened stuff out. Back in India I have come across kids who leave coins on railway tracks to see what happens and pick up the flattened piece off the tracks after the train has gone. But are they all things one can do without getting into trouble?

In quick summary it appears that in the US you can do all these things so long as the intent is not to cheat or defraud somebody. But if it is used for profit or fraud, the story changes, as it did for one young man.

Well this is the story of a young man who decided to do something more interesting with the US Penney. As you know the one cent or penny is slightly bigger than the 10 cents or the dime. The penny is made mostly of copper and hence somewhat more malleable and ductile. So he figured a way of cutting the sides off the Penney and getting it down to a dime size. That would not have helped in a shop, but the coin vending drink machines were fooled by the ruse and gave him and his friends a number of drinks at a tenth of the cost. Of course this was back in the days when money had more value and drinks cost less than they do today.

Ronald Lee Foster, from a place called Beaver Falls, Pa., was eventually caught and convicted in 1963 of mutilating coins and sentenced to a year’s probation and a $20 fine. As it appears, Foster was among 17 Camp Lejeune Marines who had come up with the idea to cut pennies into the shape of dimes. The Marines used the altered pennies to cut down on the cost of soda (their salary was $82 per month) and cigarettes in vending machines in the camp. One could get a 30 cent pack of cigarettes for 3 cents. Anyway, their luck ran out when a Secret Service agent was put in the barracks, Mr. Foster stated, probably because the vending company had caught on. So they were marched off to a judge, and their commanding officer entered a plea on their behalf and the judge sentenced each to a $20 fine and a year’s probation.

The boy was later shipped off to Vietnam. Before going he had paid the fine and completed the probation. He had assumed that with this he had thus paid back his debt to society. But unfortunately his record remained unclean and the felony was on the books, as an open issue. As you may know, a felony is generally considered to be a crime of "high seriousness" (unlike a misdemeanor which is not).

As definitions go, in many parts of the United States, a convicted felon can face long-term legal consequences persisting after the end of their imprisonment, including:
  • Disenfranchisement
  • Exclusion from obtaining certain licenses, such as a visa, or professional licenses required in order to legally operate (making many vocations off-limits to felons)
  • Exclusion from purchase and possession of firearms, ammunition and body armor
  • Ineligibility for serving on a jury
  • Ineligibility for government assistance or welfare, including being barred from federally funded housing
  • Deportation (if the criminal is not a citizen)
Foster returned from the war, served in the Marines for 12 more years, worked in the manufacturing segment, got married and had a son. Well, after all these years, some 65 of them, Foster decided to apply for a gun permit in 2005 and found the same denied as he was a felon. "I never knew we had a felony hanging over our head," Foster said. At the time of the event, "They just marched us in there, and our colonel said we were all good guys."

Fosters lawyer filed the paperwork for a pardon. I am not sure why it was not sent to the state Governor who has similar powers to issue a criminal pardon, and why it went to the president, but I can assume that this was a federal felony and not a state felony as it dealt with federal currency. The process sin Fosters case took a year and a half and included FBI agents checking out his story. Finally President Obama's signed to absolve Foster, who carried a felony record for coin mutilation since 1963, his first pardon. As reports go, Foster's 47-year-old crime was easily the strangest on the list of presidential pardons released late last week for the retired mill supervisor in Beaver Falls, Pa., found himself forgiven along with cocaine dealers, a liquor law violator and a counterfeiter.

The report continues that finally he got the call stating that he was one of nine individuals who received pardons from President Barack Obama. “It was a little bit of a surprise since it’s a year and a half since I started the procedure,” said Mr. Foster. A general statement regarding all 9 pardons was provided by the WH counsel. “The president was moved by the strength of the applicants’ post-conviction efforts at atonement, as well as their superior citizenship and individual achievements in the years since their convictions,” said White House spokesman Reid Cherlin. Mr. Obama has received 551 pardon petitions in the course of his presidency, of which he’s denied 131, according to the Justice Department. Another 265 petitions were closed without presidential action.

The last I read was that he was waiting a few weeks to seek his permit. But the secret for turning pennies into dimes will expire in the barracks of Foster's youth and he has no plans of providing further details about that.

Mr. Foster said he feels pretty good about it finally happening and even a little surprised, but to him, it was the right thing to do.

“You read all the paperwork and the story behind and it just didn’t make sense to have a felony for that offense,” he said. “[Getting a permit] will be the first thing I will do,” he said.

So fine, that was a bit of common sense finally. But how about the machines those flatten out pennies to other shapes? Is it legal? Is it legal to deface or destroy legal tender? It appears that this was once clarified by the Dept of treasury (as I say, it appears – I do not know this for sure) with the following explanation

A federal statute in the criminal code of the United States (18 U.S.C. 331), indeed makes it illegal if one "fraudulently alters, defaces, mutilates, impairs, diminishes, falsifies, scales or lightens" any U.S. coin. However, being a criminal statute, a fraudulent intent is required for violation. Thus, the mere act of compressing coins into souvenirs is not illegal, without other factors being present.

And that set me thinking, we do not hear very much about Indian presidential pardons. What happens out there?

Under the Constitution of India (Article 72), the President of India can grant a pardon or reduce the sentence of a convicted person, particularly in cases involving capital punishment. A similar & parallel power vests in the Governors of each State under Article 161.

Do you remember how Vijayalakshmi Pandit pardoned Kawas Nanavati? Read my article on that very interesting story here.

But it is a little different in India, for it is important to note that India has a unitary structure of government and there is no body of state law. As defined, all crimes are crimes against the Union of India. Therefore, a convention has developed that the Governor's powers is exercised for only minor offenses, while requests for pardons and reprieves for major offenses and offenses committed in the Union Territories are deferred to the President. And a few of them find their way to Rashtrapathi Bhavan.

Wiki explains - Both the President and Governor are bound by the advice of their respective Councils of Ministers and hence the exercise of this power is of an executive character. It is therefore subject to Judicial Review. It also depends upon other provisions of law i.e. section 54 and 55 of Indian penal code, Sections 432,433 and 433A of criminal procedure code of Indian criminal justice system and also the sentencing policies of state.

In the case of capital punishments the presidents tend to pass the pardons down the line and not take any decision. For example, Dr Abdul Kalam who recently laid down the high office of President has also expressed this philosophy “I cannot give life to anyone, I don’t see why I should give death” and eposes that convicts under death sentence need to be treated with compassion, counseling and spiritual guidance instead if condemning to the gallows, whilst pleading for Presidential pardon to be granted in the above estimated 20 cases of death sentence awaiting Presidential pardon during his Presidential tenure. As a matter of record, Dr Abdul Kalam inherited 12 cases of death sentence for presidential pardon from his predecessor namely Shri K R Narayanan and has now left to his successor, Smt Pratiba Patil the sensitive and controversial dossier of Presidential pardon in the estimated 20 cases of death sentence d├ętentes awaiting the execution of death. (Extracted from Soul creeper’s excellent write up on the subject)

Without any precedent, ex President A P J Abdul Kalam had advised the Government to consider a pardon for a majority of an estimated 50 individuals on Death Row whose mercy petitions are pending before him. This recommendation came after the Ministry of Home Affairs got back to the President saying that these cases, about 20, were not fit for Presidential pardon.

In the last three decades, Indian Presidents have commuted the sentence in only 10 of 77 petitions decided by them. But well, to conclude, it does seem pretty onerous in India and is used only in the rarest of rare cases. As newspaper reports mention - According to a Right to Information reply, President Pratibha Patil, in a recent decision, has commuted death sentences of eight men, awarded in two separate cases of murder, to life imprisonments. In 2010 she pardoned another man on the death row.

 Now again, back in the US, the president carries out a Turkey pardon on Thanksgiving Day. While they ate ceremonial turkeys until 1989, it was President GHW Bush who started the pardon practice. On Wednesday, November 24, 2010, President Obama gave two turkeys named Apple and Cider a last-minute reprieve. The pardoned turkeys go to a petting zoo. Well it is humane and certainly the least controversial pardon that a president would grant during their term, as one can figure.

Law was created for making an otherwise not so routine life, routine and orderly. In the end it is always a case of people creating and taking law into their hands, as is always the case. Sometimes I wonder why god and scriptures were brought into it often like when you swear yourself in over a religious book. I have always wondered if people really take that part seriously. Anyway, history is replete with various legal stories, but well, for one more interested in such avenues, especially Presidential pardons; the latest John Grisham book is certainly a good read.

Note: I have little knowledge on these things and presented this event only since I found this little story amusing and wanted to share with you all that the President here is also involved with pardons that are not dealing with capital punishment.

Pics – Pres Obama from Newsone.com, Pres Patil topnews.in



E Pradeep said...

Funny that such small pardons go all the way to the President; is it not a waste of time for such petitions to be considered at such a high level? Surely, the President has better things to do...

Also since the person has served his sentence and given the fine, what is the point of a pardon, that too for such a small misdemeanour?

zurabeth said...

well maddy we guys here in india make use of washers to insert as coins!!!!Yeah around the globe there is a way or another for vending machines

Maddy said...

thanks pradeep..
this is one of those quaint things remaining in the bureaucracy from the old past, or so i suppose!!

Maddy said...

thanks zubareth...
washers? well that is interesting...i remember in our younger days people had used araldite to glue a string to a rupee coin to use it on public phone booths and get the phone going for more minutes...