What would happen if a sitting United States president was put in prison? Could such a thing even happen? Would he be removed from office before this, or could he even be sentenced for anything?

Also, would this affect the pension he gets for being president?

I guess this question overall is: what would happen if the US president was charged with a crime that would get him jail time?

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    Nitpick which might be more relevant than you think: Do you really mean charged with a crime or actually convicted? Because the legal system assumes someone charged with a crime is innocent until they were actually convicted by a court of law.
    – Philipp
    Nov 18, 2017 at 13:06
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    I'm not exactly familiar with legalese. I think though that someone has to be charged with a crime first before they're convicted? I guess both should be discussed. Would the president be removed as soon as he was charged, or could he remain president up until he was sentenced and imprisoned? I don't know if Trump can be put in prison for obstruction of justice, but either way its obvious that he's going to have to pay the price for it while he's still in office.
    – user18087
    Nov 18, 2017 at 13:09
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    There's charged with a crime, then there's the trial, and found guilty/not guilty (or hung), then the sentencing and possible appeals process, there's several steps. A president could theoretically hold onto his job throughout a lot of the process and there's no law (that I know of) that says he can't do the job from a prison cell, but at a certain point during the found guilty/going to jail process, successful impeachment becomes close to a guarantee, even if he pardon's himself (see duplicate question), the Prez holding onto the job would be highly unlikely, but theoretically possible.
    – userLTK
    Nov 18, 2017 at 13:33
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    @Philipp presume <> assume.
    – phoog
    Nov 18, 2017 at 18:43
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    Just to clarify, this question supposes a US president being jailed by the US criminal justice system only? As opposed to a president being jailed by another nation, which hypothetically either didn't care about the various likely consequences or was resourceful enough to cope with them.
    – agc
    Nov 19, 2017 at 4:41

3 Answers 3


As your third sentence hints at, it's extremely unlikely to impossible that a sitting president would be convicted of any crime outside of impeachment procedure (at the successful conclusion of which the person would, of course, no longer be a sitting president but a random citizen).

Please note that there's no definitive consensus on this (including the only real way it can be conclusively resolved, by a SCOTUS decision).

Additionally, there are 3 different types of judicial proceedings and the answer for them would be different:

  1. Actions taken in Presidential capacity:

    NO. This falls under "Sovereign immunity" concept.

  2. Criminal prosecution for actions taken outside Presidential capacity

    There's a near consensus that the answer is NO

    "An impeachment proceeding is the only appropriate way to deal with a president while in office," - Assistant Attorney General Robert Dixon, 1973

    "The framers implicitly immunized a sitting president from ordinary criminal prosecution" - Akhil Reed Amar, a law professor at Yale.

    "Whether the Constitution allows indictment of a sitting president is debatable," Brett M. Kavanaugh, who served on the staff of Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton, wrote in a 1998 law review article

    However, as noted above, it's not so much law as opinions (plenty of which are cited in this NYT article), as such a case was never tried by SCOTUS.

  3. Civil case for actions taken outside Presidency

    Again, no irrefutable consensus. Most seem to point to "no", but at the very least one expert thinks the answer is "Yes" - as per Ronald Rotunda's opinion requested by Ken Starr:

    ...it is proper, constitutional, and legal for a federal grand jury to indict a sitting president for serious criminal acts that are not part of, and are contrary to, the president's official duties. In this country, no one, even President Clinton, is above the law.

Other resources: AG memo

Regarding pension: legal opinion seems to be that in, most cases outside Code 8312 (sedition, rebellion, treason) the pension of a person fired from Federal Government remains.

  • 7
    Your last quote (the one from Ronald Rotunda) specifically states that he's talking about criminal proceedings, not about civil actions (a grand jury indictment is for a criminal action, not a civil action). IOW, this quote should be given as counterpoint on your second bullet. Nov 18, 2017 at 17:54
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    I would disagree on Case 2. It hasn't come up, but there is really no legal basis for immunity from criminal prosecution for a President's unofficial acts (e.g. domestic violence or murder directed at the First Lady conducted in the White house).
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 21, 2017 at 6:15
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    What if the president were to stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody ?
    – Mawg
    May 23, 2018 at 11:57
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    @user4012, Let's raise the hypothesized stakes, and suppose it's publicly discovered that a sitting president is a pederast necrophiliac serial killer who keeps dozens of white house tour visitor's body parts, along with video recordings of his strange while-in-office crimes, in a secret room behind the bowling alley. Impeach that...
    – agc
    Jun 4, 2018 at 2:52
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    @MawgsaysreinstateMonica: Then his blood is on his own head when he is shot dead by his own secret service agents; his status will not protect him from being shot dead for being a immediate thread to innocent life. But if not than he has to be impeached before he can be even arrested.
    – Joshua
    Mar 22, 2021 at 20:37

It would seem nearly unbelievable that the President would let it go so far that he actually went to prison. Although it would undoubtedly be unpopular politically, if a sitting President were actually convicted of a crime he could pardon himself as soon as the guilty verdict was announced.

It's hard to imagine that it would ever get to this point though. You'd need a president who was so wildly popular that it was essentially impossible for congress to impeach him. It's hard to imagine the level of popularity that would require though.

Let's consider a concrete case: Richard Nixon. Before the Watergate scandal broke, Nixon was wildly popular. In the 1972 election, he got 520 electoral votes, to 17 for George McGovern. The popular vote wasn't quite so one-sided, but still won the popular vote by the largest margin in US history. Pre-Watergate, Nixon had to look about as close to unimpeachable as any president in history.

Shortly after the 1972 election, however, the Watergate scandal broke. Here's what happened to Nixon's approval ratings:

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Although he resigned before he could be impeached, by the time he resigned his approval ratings had dropped to the point that there was no longer any real question that impeachment proceedings would not only have proceeded, but would have undoubtedly resulted in his being removed from office.

To make a long story short, almost regardless of how popular a president started out, when enough evidence became public to uphold a conviction, it's almost inevitable that his approval would have dropped to the point that he'd be impeached and removed from office first. As such, there is essentially no possibility of a sitting president being convicted of a crime.

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    Nemo judex in causa sua: no one can pardon themself. That isn't how the law works, nor has it for thousands of years.
    – tchrist
    Nov 18, 2017 at 19:14
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    @tchrist: Please feel free to cite where the US Constitution supports your position (but we both know it doesn't contain anything that even hints at such a limitation). Nov 18, 2017 at 19:29
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    Unrelated to the topic, but Nixon's election #s were possibly more a reflection on McGovern than Nixon
    – user4012
    Nov 18, 2017 at 19:57
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    @JerryCoffin: Re pardoning oneself: The Seventh Amendment explicitly uses the phrase "common law" and Article III refers to cases "in Law and Equity." Both of these phrases incorporate the common law (of England, one presumes and SCOTUS has held w.r.t. the Seventh Amendment at least) by reference. So if the common law forbids pardoning oneself (or did in 1789), then that would automatically extend to American law. English common law is, of course, quite broad, so it is difficult to verify the kind of categorical statement you have made here.
    – Kevin
    Nov 18, 2017 at 23:05
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    @BobJarvis: As far as issuing a pardon prior to conviction goes: while there was definitely argument about its validity, almost immediately after taking office President Ford actually did pardon Nixon for anything and everything related to Watergate, without his ever having been convicted. Nov 19, 2017 at 0:38

If a sitting President were actually jailed and was unable to perform his or her duties, this is covered in Amendment 25 of the US Constitution; basically the vice president would become Acting President with a bit of paperwork. This could be a temporary thing or a longer-term thing.

It's exceedingly unlikely that this would happen in America, as the DOJ has officially stated that the President is effectively immune from prosecution during his/ her tenure, but in theory this is not binding to state or municipal-level law enforcement/ justice systems (in practice, it would be almost impossible for an American local government to effectively jail a sitting president). If the charges the President were not ahem Trumped up (see what I did there?), it's likely such illegal behavior would warrant and ultimately drive an impeachment by Congress and a conviction by the Senate... at which point the Vice President would become the new President.

Please note we're still talking about American jails. It gets a little weirder if the president goes to another nation and is arrested, charged, convicted, and imprisoned. Most traveling heads of state are granted blanket diplomatic immunity, but depending on the politics involved, that may not be as protective as one might expect. In such a case, the 25th Amendment would certainly come into play.

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