Withhold of Adjudication
March 24, 2015
Erin Steele, 21, of Pompano Beach, who shot and killed her ex-boyfriend Justin Holt, 22, in 2013, has been given seven years probation on a plea bargain. Steele, Holt, and some friends had been practicing with an unloaded pistol, which a friend later loaded. Steele later picked up the pistol, aimed at Holt, and fired, killing him. Steele said that she did not know it was loaded, and there was no evidence that the shooting was intentional.
Steele pleaded guilty to manslaughter with a firearm. The terms of the plea deal include seven years probation for Steele with the first year under house arrest, one hundred hours of community service, and random drug testing. She may apply to end the probation after five years. If Steele violates the terms of her probation, she faces a ten to thirty year prison sentence.
After finding a defendant guilty or after a guilty plea, the court must decide whether to adjudicate the offender guilty or to withhold adjudication. Adjudicating a person guilty means that he or she has been convicted of the offense. A withheld adjudication, however, means that the defendant has not been convicted of the crime.
Withholding adjudication is designed to give defendants a second chance after uncharacteristic criminal activity. It is most often used for those facing their first criminal offenses, though it is not limited to first offenders. The court has discretion to decide when a withhold of adjudication is appropriate. The court may withhold adjudication when the defendant is unlikely to engage in a course of criminal behavior and when justice and the welfare of society do not require that the defendant be penalized.
If a court withholds adjudication, felony defendants must be placed on probation. Nonfelony defendants may be placed on probation, but probation is not required. A fine may also be required. After the completion of probation, there is no adjudication of guilt, and the defendant cannot be sentenced for the offense.
A major benefit of withholding adjudication instead of being convicted, other than avoiding jail time, is avoiding the collateral consequences of crime. For example, if the withheld adjudication is for a felony offense, the defendant does not lose his or her civil liberties—he or she can vote, own a firearm, hold public office, etc. Because a withhold of adjudication means that there was no criminal conviction, a defendant does not have to check “yes” on job applications that ask if the applicant has any prior criminal convictions. Those who have had adjudications withheld also avoid trouble in other areas, such as obtaining credit, obtaining housing, or qualifying for student loans.
Another benefit of withholding adjudication is that the defendant may remain eligible for the sealing or expungement of his or her criminal record. If a person has ever been convicted of a crime, it is no longer possible to have the criminal record sealed or expunged, but a withheld adjudication does not affect eligibility.
There are limits to the offenses for which adjudication may be withheld. Adjudication may not be withheld in any capital, life, or first degree murder offenses. For second degree felonies, adjudication may not be withheld unless either the state attorney requests it in writing, or the court makes written findings that withholding is justified based on mitigating circumstances or factors. Additionally, defendants are not eligible to withhold adjudication for second degree felonies if they have had a withhold of adjudication for a prior felony. Third degree felony defendants are ineligible if they have had two or more prior felony withholds.
The Florida statutes include several specific instances limiting the use of a withhold of adjudication. Importantly, the DUI statute prohibits withholding adjudication for any DUI offense.
If you have been arrested for or charged with any criminal offense, a dedicated criminal law attorney may be able to help you achieve a withhold of adjudication or another favorable result. Please contact West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney William Wallshein for a free initial consultation.