I just read that under US law, the US president may pardon a person even before they have been sentenced, and even before they have been accused (see e.g. Ex Parte Garland, 1866). .

I was curious about the legal situation in Germany. The German Basic Law (Grundgesetz), Article 60 says:

(2) He (the Federal President) shall exercise the power to pardon offenders on behalf of the Federation in individual cases.

However, I could not find any law that specifies what exactly is covered by the "power to pardon".

So my question:

Can a pardon under Article 60 be issued before the offender has been sentenced?

I did find an article by the Legal Service of the Bundestag, which says:

Unter„Begnadigung“ wird eine Maßnahme verstanden, mit der eine rechtskräftige Entschei-dung beseitigt oder gemildert wird.

My translation:

"Pardon" refers to a measure which removes or mitigates a legally binding decision.

Das Begnadigungsrecht des Bundespräsidenten, Anja Eiardt/Sarab Borhanian, 2007

So it seems to be accepted that a pardon is only possible after sentencing - but what is this based on? Is there some special law?

  • A lot of words used in laws are not defined in laws, but have a generally agreed-upon meaning, possibly shaped by precedent, history, and delegated acts. This meaning can be different in different countries. The Wissenschaftliche Dienst you cited is extremely reliable and non-partisan. The assumption that pardons first require a conviction also surfaces in some primary legislation, e.g. §452 StPO (“entschieden worden ist” – have been decided). – amon Dec 2 '20 at 12:03
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    What you search for is the "Gnadenordnung" a administrative regulation of the competent executive authority how to deal with requests for pardon. The Federation does not have one as there are only few convivtions exercising federal jurisdiction, but (all?) states have one, e.g. Brandenburg (bravors.brandenburg.de/verwaltungsvorschriften/gno). The text only speaks about waiving (altering etc) legal consequences already imposed by a court or other judicial authority. This is (like § 452 StPO) a hint, that it is not possible to pardon before the conviction. – K-HB Dec 2 '20 at 21:03
  • @K-HB: So all sources seem to silently assume that a pardon is only after sentencing, but it's not stated explicitly anywhere. So a kind of legal tradition? – sleske Dec 3 '20 at 7:47
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    @sleske "Begnadidung" seems to only be that thing, but I am not sure where that comes from. An "Amnestie" is needed for pardoning many cases abstract before any prosecution. "Niederschlagung" is for a pending case. An Amnestie needed a law according to Art. 49 II Weimar Constitution. I think the monarches had all these competenes in the 19th century, but I don't know when it began to split up. It may be that time when the exact word meaning evolved. – K-HB Dec 3 '20 at 16:40
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    Incidentally, the federal rule regarding pardons for federal crimes is not adopted universally by U.S. states where the scope of the pardon power and the pardon process vary considerably. Many if not most differ from the federal model in multiple different ways (some only allow pardons of convictions, some limit the power to a board rather than a governor, etc.) – ohwilleke Dec 8 '20 at 0:55

tl;dr: Yes, a pardon under German law is only possible for a final court sentence (or other similar sanctions, such as expulsion of a public servant).

This is not written down explicitly anywhere. Rather, this rule, like most other rules around pardons, is a matter of historical convention. This is probably because the power to pardon itself is a historical convention (and considered by some to be a violation of modern legal principles), so it kind of stands "outside of the law".

Apparently the Begnadigungsrecht (power to pardon) mentioned in Article 60 of the Basic Law is not formally defined anywhere, rather the details are a matter of convention.

However, there is a judgement by the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht), "Zur Frage der Justitiabilität von Gnadenentscheidungen", 2 BvR 552/63. The judgement gives some historical background for the power of pardon, and confirms that there is no formal definition. Additionally, the judgement says:

Das Begnadigungsrecht, wie es das Grundgesetz in Art. 60 Abs. 2 kennt, besteht in der Befugnis, im Einzelfall eine rechtskräftig erkannte Strafe ganz oder teilweise zu erlassen, sie umzuwandeln oder ihre Vollstreckung auszusetzen. Es eröffnet die Möglichkeit, eine im Rechtsweg zustande gekommene und im Rechtsweg nicht mehr zu ändernde Entscheidung auf einem "anderen", "besonderen" Weg zu korrigieren.

The judgement explicitly mentions "rechtskräftig erkannte Strafe" (final legal decision or judgement) - so this explicitly confirms that the power of pardon is only for changing a (final) judgement.

Similarly, the Bayerische Gnadenordnung, §5 says:

(1) Der Gnadenweg darf nicht dazu dienen, die nach gesetzlichen Bestimmungen mögliche Anrufung des Gerichts zu ersetzen. Hierüber ist der Gesuchsteller gegebenenfalls zu belehren.

My translation:

The process of pardon shall not be used to replace court proceedings as given by applicable laws. An applicant for a pardon is to be informed about this when applicable.

This, again, confirms that a pardon must not replace or inhibit a court judgement.

  • rechtskräftig erkannte Strafe is translated badly: rechtskräftig means in this context, that the verdict has become final in one form of another. "erkannte Strafe" is somewhat old for recognized punishment. So the better translation is "judically obtained and final recognized verdict" – Trish Jan 5 at 11:45
  • @Trish: Thanks for the advice, I'm no expert on legal English. I tried to find a better wording. – sleske Jan 5 at 13:12
  • Presumption of innocence may also have something to do with this. – Mark Johnson Jan 5 at 14:31

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