Writ Of Error Coram Nobis and The Relief It Provides

writ of error coram nobisAppellate courts often recognize trial errors during the appeals process, some which could drastically change the outcome of cases. From simple procedural errors to prosecutorial misconduct, lower courts may miss massive errors that could have exonerated the now convicted defendant.

With a writ of coram nobis, the appellate court instructs the trial court to reconsider the case based on omissions or extreme misconduct. Latin for “error before us”, the writ isn’t filed frequently for one reason – it’s very, very difficult to get these writs granted, especially in today’s already contentious criminal justice system.

Let’s learn more about this writ, deemed obsolete in England in 1907 and used only in 15 state courts, most Federal courts and District of Columbia.

History and use of coram nobis

Early American use of this writ included both criminal and civil cases, with notable application dating back to 1789 upon the enactment of the Judiciary Act. Section 14 of that Act allowed federal courts to use writs when no other section of law covered issues during or after trials. Back then, use of coram nobis was limited to correction of technicalities such as discovery of a defendant’s age being that of a minor, death of defendant during verdict, or typographical errors committed by court stenographer.

With changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in 1946, writs of coram nobis were unfit for civil trials as changes enacted included more specific methods of civil error correction. Therefore, Congress abolished their civil use in 1946.

Congress ratified Rule 4(a)(1)(C) of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure to clarify time limit allotted to file these writs, with appellate judges split on whether 10 or 60 days was sufficient. The above rule set the time limit to sixty (60) days.

Granting the writ

Limited to cases where manifest injustices or fundamental due process errors are committed, coram nobis writs cannot be used to reargue various points or reopen specific cases not relevant to the procedural errors in question; rather, the writ must specifically address errors of fact. This includes prosecutorial abuse in making evidence available to courts and defense.

In determining whether the writ is grantable, courts will put each writ through a multipart test. Therefore, the petitioner must:

  1. Clarify their reason for not seeking relief from judgment sooner;
  2. Validate the concomitant damage their conviction has caused; and
  3. Prove that the error is essential to the cogency of the judgment.

These writs are known more for their rate of denial than their use in today’s jurisprudence. With the abolishment of this writ in civil cases, it’s practicality in criminal cases was long questioned until United States vs. Morgan clarified its availability in Federal criminal courts.

Another writ closely resembles the utility of the coram nobis, the writ of error coram vobis. Unlike its close relative, the coram vobis writ addresses covertures, clerical errors, death of defendant or other parties during due process, infancy or process errors.

If granted, the writ could either be retry or dismiss the original case.

Gauging applicability to your case

First, your case must have clear violations of due process recognizable by the appellate court. Since you’ll have an attorney handle your appeals process, they’ll discover errors and raise them amicably before the appellate court. The writ must pass the three-prong test discussed above before appellate judges will remand your case to lower court.

In Arizona, standard rules of post-conviction relief supersede the coram nobis writ, although their use may still be applicable in Federal courts. It’s uncertain if a habeas corpus writ would survive this rule since it performs a separate function.

Powerful as they may be, writs of error coram nobis are rare. Choose their use wisely.  Click here for additional information on finding the right Arizona criminal lawyer.