It’s In Your Court: No mulligans in criminal court

Judge Steve Halsey

If you are a golfer you may have more than once announced to your playing partners, “I’m taking a mulligan” when you had a bad shot. We all have desires for “do-overs” when we mess up in life. A “mulligan” is a do-over in golf even though not allowed in the rules and permitted only among friends. But are there “mulligans” in criminal court? Put another way, can the court grant forgiveness to someone who commits a crime, even a minor offense? Can the court “wipe the slate clean?”

As to the trial court, my answers are “no.” This may sound harsh and unsympathetic, but I answer those questions in the negative based upon my interpretation of “equal justice” and the law. Judges have no power to dismiss a criminal offense based upon the circumstances of the defendant, whether they say they are sorry and it will never happen again, or whether they are a single parent or had rough childhood or are in a protected class, such as elderly, a veteran, or disabled. 

A person convicted of a crime faces consequences dictated by the court, though there usually is a broad spectrum of what those consequences may be. Only the Board of Pardons, or the trial court in very limited circumstances by expungement, can erase a person’s criminal record. The articles about forgiveness in court generally discuss alternative sentencing, such as probation with chemical dependency treatment and other consequences other than simply incarceration. I agree that alternative sentencing dispositions are often appropriate, particularly for first offenders, but that is a topic for another time.

Judges also cannot provide forgiveness — on behalf of society — to a criminal defendant. Forgiveness, in my view, is a matter between individuals. In Hennepin County District Court in March 2012 as reported by the Star Tribune, a 76-year-old woman who was the victim of a car theft confronted the juvenile offender. 

The woman said, “When we forgive, we don’t deny the hurt that we have received. We don’t deny that it was wrong, but we acknowledge there is more to the offender than the offense.”

She talked about being a foster mom for about 50 kids, many of them who had been abused and neglected, and how much she empathized with the young man standing before her in court.

“I would like [the teen] to know that I pray for him and the other two [boys who were with him] daily, and that it is not too late for them,” she said. “I would also like these boys to think of their own families. Would they want their families to experience what I have?”

The woman added, “Again, please let [the boy] know that I sincerely care about him, and I am praying for his redirection and rehabilitation. A good life awaits him, if he will just choose a new path. God bless.”

“The hurt, I never thought of that,” said the teen. “I’m really sorry. I regret this decision. I’m sorry for all of the hurt that I caused you.”

The judge, known to be stern and no-nonsense, finally spoke from the bench.

“I think many of us have been doing this work for a very, very long time, and I have never seen such a powerful moment in my career,” the judge said. “The [teen’s] recognition that you had an impact on somebody, that this is not an anonymous hurt, this is a personal hurt. It just so happened that you by chance chose as a victim somebody who can change your life.”

The judge added, “It was the genuine concern and love for this kid who stole her car that blew us all away. It was a miracle.” 

So the next time you are stopped for speeding or some other traffic offense, consider carefully the consequences before you ask the officer for a mulligan.


— Wright County District Court Judge Steve Halsey is chambered in Buffalo. He also maintains a blog at

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