Despite the stated protections allegedly afforded to criminal defendants in the state of Minnesota, as well as in other jurisdictions in the United States, there are instances in which a person convicted of a crime is not guilty of the offense. In addition, there also exist cases in which something truly goes awry and a criminal defendant's constitutional rights are abrogated in a particularly egregious manner. These are some examples of circumstances in which an individual who has completed a criminal sentence may desire to seek redress from the court to overturn a criminal conviction.
Minnesota law recognizes two general types of remedies to obtain judicial relief following the conviction for a crime. One of these remedies is called a direct appeal. That involves a criminal defendant making a direct appeal to the Minnesota Court of Appeals (or the Supreme Court, if the defendant was convicted of first degree murder) within a very short period of time.
Although the immediate inclination of someone who wants relief from an old conviction might be to appeal that conviction, this particular remedy simply will not be available in many circumstances. This particularly is the case when the defendant has completed the sentence. Generally, defendant has 90 days after sentencing to appeal a felony or gross misdemeanor conviction or sentence. The time to appeal decreases to just 30 days in misdemeanor or petty misdemeanor cases. The time limits are found in Rule 28 of the Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure.
Minnesota law contains other provisions that permit a criminal defendant the ability to petition the court for relief even after the time period for an appeal has expired. Although most people who seek relief via this route as still serving their sentences, Minnesota does leave the door open to a person who desires to seek relief for a legitimate reason once his or her sentence has been served.
The reality is that a person who completed a sentence associated with a conviction may still be subjected to what can be construed as penalties. For example, a person previously convicted of a felony legally is not able to possess a firearm, which is a right otherwise guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.
When it comes to pursuing a post conviction remedy after serving the sentence, the time frame in which a person must file an application for relief becomes a matter of discretion for the court in Minnesota. In basic terms, a defendant seeking this type of relief must make a preliminary showing to the court demonstrating that he or she has a substantive claim to be made. In other words, the person pursuing this type of post conviction, post sentence relief must make an initial showing to the court that a legitimate issue exists requiring the court to revisit the circumstances of the case.
Because a Minnesota court is being asked to grant equitable relief, assuming a person can make this initial showing, the court will take up the issue or issues presented even if the sentence has been served and a good deal of time has passed since the sentencing hearing in the underlying case.
In order to prevail in having an old conviction overturned following the completion of the sentence, a person must demonstrate that a profoundly serious issue exists in regard to the underlying case. For example, if the use of fingerprint or DNA evidence demonstrates actual innocence, the possibility of obtaining an order overturning the conviction exists.
If a person seeking this type of relief can demonstrate prosecutorial misconduct or misconduct by the judge, an old conviction might be overturned. The misconduct must be so serious that it contaminated the criminal proceedings to such an extent that the defendant's constitutional rights to a fair trial were significantly impaired.
Seeking to have an old conviction overturned is a very complicated and highly challenging legal matter. Although logic may dictate that a person who can factually demonstrate his or her innocence can quickly obtain this type of relief, the legal system in Minnesota and elsewhere in the United States is not structured in this manner.
A person seeking this type of post conviction relief truly must give serious consideration to obtaining legal representation. Moreover, not just any criminal defense attorney will do. Rather, a person must seek out representation from a lawyer who has specific experience in pursuing post conviction remedies of this nature.
A very real cost exists to pursuing this type of relief without an attorney. Taking this route significantly increases the chances that the relief sought will not be granted.
The reality is that retaining an attorney to obtain this type of relief can be an expensive proposition. With that said, there can be some fairly significant fee differences from one attorney to another.
In many cases, an attorney will offer a free initial consultation to discuss the merits of a case to obtain post conviction relief. If a person elects to retain an attorney, a retainer usually will need to be paid to that lawyer. A person needs to keep in mind that additional fees may be charged above and beyond the initial retainer when pursuing this type of case.
The odds are slim of prevailing in a case seeking to overturn a conviction for which the sentence has been served. Generally, this type of relief from an existing conviction occurs in only the most extreme situations.
Examples of these situations include a factual demonstration of actual innocence of the charges, significant misconduct by the prosecuting attorney or the judge who presided during the criminal proceedings or demonstrable mental incompetence at the time of the prosecution of such a nature that the proceeding was a sham.
A number of resources exist through which a person interested in seeking to have an old criminal conviction overturned can turn. The Minnesota State Bar Association provides some resources for laypersons interested in finding legal representation. Although the organization cannot make specific recommendations regarding a particular attorney, the Bar Association does have directories of attorneys that practice in different areas of the law.
In some rare cases, the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, may elect to take on representation in a particular case attempting to overturn an old conviction or sentence. Oftentimes, these are cases in which significant issues of public policy are involved.
In some instances, the court itself may appoint a lawyer to represent a person who seeks to have an old conviction overturned. The court is more apt to take this step in instances in which an individual is still serving a sentence, particularly a sentence of incarceration.
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