In Florida, a judge has the final decision on what happens to a defendant that is found guilty of committing a criminal offense. The defendant may have pleaded guilty, or findings in the court or government proceedings could have made this apparent. Either way, the judge can decide whether the offender will formally be convicted of the offense or not. This legal ruling and settling of the case through the criminal justice system is known as adjudication. When a judge decides not to convict the defendant, this is known as a withhold of adjudication.
It is important to note that this is not the same as the criminal case being dismissed. So, is adjudication withheld a conviction? And what does this ruling mean for your client? As a criminal law attorney, it is essential to know the true definition as well as the benefits and limitations. All of this and more will be covered in this article.
What Does Disposition of Adjudication Withheld Mean?
The definition of “withheld of adjudication” can be described as a special sentence ordered by the judge following the defendant being found guilty, meaning they are not formally convicted for a criminal offense. Therefore, the defendant avoids the negative consequences of a criminal conviction. The courts also avoid the time and expenses associated with an adjudication. To put things more simply, withholding adjudication essentially gives the defendant a “second chance” without being arrested or charged for a crime and suffering the consequences — even if the defendant is guilty.
However, the defendant is not free from sentencing. When adjudication is withheld for a felony offense, the judge will order a probation sentence but without a formal conviction. On the other hand, non-felony offenses may either be placed on probation or occasionally given a fine. Once either the fines have been paid or the probation has been complete, there is no adjudication of guilt. This is in line with Florida Statute 948.04, which states: “Upon the termination of the period of probation, the probationer shall be released from probation and is not liable to sentence for the offense for which probation was allowed.”
Although at the end of the probation period the offender will have no official conviction on their record, it is important to note the differences between a withheld adjudication and a case being dismissed. In all adjudication withheld cases, the defendant is guilty and no criminal charges were dropped, but there is no conviction. In comparison, when cases are dismissed, all charges are dropped and the defendant is found not guilty.
When is Adjudication Withheld by Judges?
According to Florida Statute 984.01, the judge will only issue an adjudication withheld if the courts think the defendant is remorseful for their crime. They need to be convinced that the offender is not likely to engage in future criminal activity and so does not deserve the usual sentencing punishments associated with a criminal conviction. Because of this, it is likely that a judge will only withhold adjudication if this is the first crime the defendant committed. Although highly unlikely, in some special instances and depending on the specifics for the case, the judge can issue this for second offenses, too.
The type of offense committed will also affect whether or not withholding adjudication is an option. For all capital felonies, life felonies, or first-degree felonies, adjudication cannot be withheld. Regarding second-degree felonies, whether this is an appropriate ruling depends on the nature of the crime. For example, withholding could be justified based on specific mitigating circumstances applying to the case, as detailed in Florida Statute 921.0026. This legal ruling is also almost exclusively reserved for non-violent crimes. In addition, Florida Statute 775.08435 states that second-degree offenses can only be withheld if either:
- The state attorney sends a request for a withheld adjudication in writing to the courts;
- The courts can reasonably justify the adjudication being withheld based on the specific mitigating factors detailed in the above s. 921.0026.
For a judge to withhold adjudication of guilt, the defendant also has to have been found guilty of committing the offense. This can be a result of either the offender entering a guilty plea or no contest, or being charged based on court findings. However, in the case of looking remorseful, when the defendant enters a plea it makes a withheld adjudication more likely.
What are the Benefits of Adjudication of Guilt Withheld?
There are many benefits of withholding adjudication for the defendant. These include (1) employment opportunities, (2) avoiding collateral consequences, (3) maintaining social stability, and (4) ability to seal the criminal offense.
- Employment Opportunities
Criminal convictions can drastically reduce an individual’s employment opportunities. Often, employers will ask for potential new employees to disclose their criminal records, which will play a weight on their hiring process. As defendants in cases that receive a withhold of adjudication are not formally convicted, the employer may not ask to see this on the job application. As a result, their employment opportunities are the same as if the crime never occurred.
If currently employed when convicted of a crime, this could also result in job loss. However, when withheld from adjudication, the loss of a job is much less likely as the individual is not officially convicted of the offense.
- Avoiding Collateral Consequences
When a person is convicted of a crime and receives adjudication of guilt, there are many collateral consequences aside from the sentence itself. In other words, these are the consequences of being convicted not directly imposed by the judge, but still carry a huge impact on the convict’s life. Examples include having their driver’s license suspended, being denied the usual public health benefits, eviction from public housing, or deportation. A person’s civil liberties can also be affected by a conviction, and a felon may lose the right to vote or possess a firearm. By receiving a withhold of adjudication, the defendant avoids all of these associated negative consequences.
- Maintaining Social Stability
Various social consequences can also derive from receiving a criminal conviction. It could trigger the end of a marriage or the breakdown of other family situations and relationships. In general, the social stability of felons is lower. However, when adjudication is withheld, these social ties are less likely to be severed.
- Ability to Seal the Criminal Offence
Adjudication withholds also allows the criminal offense to be sealed or expunged. This means they will no longer be visible on public records and anyone wishing to view the documents and details of the criminal proceedings must have a court order to do so. Because of this, it makes all the other benefits on this list more likely, as anyone running background checks will not come across the criminal records. This makes it easier when trying to secure housing, a new job, or other various civil rights.
What are the Limitations of Adjudication Withholds?
Despite this long list of benefits, there are a few limitations of an adjudication being withheld. These include the following:
- When violent offenses — such as violent burglary, sexual offenses, or domestic violence — are withheld, these cannot be sealed or expunged and will show up in background checks.
- When records are sealed, this does not automatically mean all background checks will be passed. For example, if a job application asks whether the defendant has ever been convicted of a crime they can say “no.” If the question asks if they have been arrested they would have to answer “yes.”
- Although the state of Florida accepts adjudication withholding, the same is not true in other U.S. states. As such, the crime could still be treated as a conviction in other jurisdictions or at the federal level.
- As a withhold of adjudication is based on the idea that the defendant is remorseful and won’t commit another crime in the future, the punishments for any subsequent crimes will likely be more severe.
- Any non-U.S. citizen that receives a withhold of adjudication may be deported or have other immigration consequences. Being found guilty of even minor criminal offenses could lead to deportation.
When found guilty of a crime in Florida, the defendant won’t necessarily be convicted. Instead, the judge can decide whether to adjudicate the offender guilty or withhold this adjudication. When the latter occurs, the defendant will likely be given a probation term and, after the period is successfully completed, they will not be liable for sentencing.
This has many benefits for the defendant. They will have more equal employment opportunities, maintain their social stability, and avoid the collateral consequences linked with conviction. However, adjudication withholding is not available for everyone. Typically, the courts will reserve this for minor non-violent crimes and first-time offenses where they truly believe the guilty individual is remorseful and won’t commit crimes again in the future.