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Withhold of Adjudication

Pursuant to F.S. §948.01, judges in Florida are vested with the authority to “withhold adjudication” in a criminal matter, usually when the person is placed on probation for a first offense. The concept of a “withhold of adjudication” doesn’t exist in federal court. In other words, when a federal judge imposes a sentence in a criminal case, a conviction always occurs.

Florida law prohibits the court from withholding adjudication of guilt in certain types of felony and misdemeanor cases. For example, the sentencing court may not withhold adjudication of guilt upon a defendant for a capital, life, or first-degree felony as explained in Section 775.08435(1)(a), F.S.

For a second degree felony, the court cannot withhold adjudication unless either the state attorney makes a written request to do so, or the court makes written findings that a withhold of adjudication is reasonably justified based on the circumstances or statutorily recognized mitigating factors.

The same prohibition and exceptions apply when a defendant has committed a third-degree felony and has a prior withholding of adjudication for another felony offense. Regardless of the presence of mitigating circumstances, a court may not withhold adjudication when a defendant has committed a second-degree felony and has a prior withhold of adjudication from a different offense.

Additionally, the court may not withhold adjudication when the defendant committed a third-degree felony and has two or more prior withholdings of adjudication from a different offense as provided in 775.08435, F.S.

The Florida legislature recently amended 775.08435, F.S., to add an additional circumstance in which the court is prohibited from withholding the adjudication of a defendant unless certain exceptions apply. The new law prohibits the court from withholding adjudication for a third-degree felony that is a crime of domestic violence unless:

  • the state attorney makes a written request for the adjudication be withheld, or
  • the court makes written findings that the withholding of adjudication is reasonably justified based on the circumstances or statutory mitigating factors.

The third-degree felony domestic violence offenses to which this prohibition would apply include:

  • Section 784.021, F.S., relating to aggravated assault;
  • Section 784.03(2), F.S., relating to felony battery;
  • Section 784.041(1), F.S., relating to felony battery;
  • Section 784.041, F.S., relating to felony battery by strangulation;
  • Section 784.048, F.S., relating to aggravated stalking; or
  • Section 787.02, F.S., relating to false imprisonment.

Authority to Withhold Adjudication as Provided in Section 948.01

Florida Statute Section 948.01 vests judges in Florida with the authority to withhold adjudication after the court imposes a probation sentence. Section 948.01 provides:

If it appears to the court upon a hearing of the matter that the defendant is not likely again to engage in a criminal course of conduct and that the ends of justice and the welfare of society do not require that the defendant presently suffer the penalty imposed by law, the court, in its discretion, may either adjudge the defendant to be guilty or stay and withhold the adjudication of guilt….

Avoiding a conviction is important because if a person receives a withhold of adjudication, the person might be eligible to seal the criminal history record. It is also important to avoid a conviction so that the person does not lose their civil rights including the right to apply for a concealed weapons permit, vote in an election, hold an elected office, or possess a firearm.


What is the Purpose of Withhold Adjudication?

The purpose of withholding adjudication is rehabilitative, to avoid “damning consequences” including the loss of civil rights.

In Peters v. State, 984 So.2d 1227 (Fla. 2008), the Florida Supreme Court found that:

“[t]he purpose of the granting of probation … without an actual adjudication of guilt, is rehabilitation of one who has committed the crime charged without formally and judicially branding the individual as a convicted criminal and without the loss of civil rights and other damning consequences.”

Id. at 1231 (quoting Bernhardt v. State, 288 So.2d 490, 495 (Fla.1974).

In Lopez v. State, 509 So.2d 1334, 1335 n. 4 (Fla. 3d DCA 1987), the court concluded that the purpose of allowing the trial court to place a defendant on probation after he or she is found guilty after a plea or trial, without entering a formal judgment of conviction, is rehabilitative, and if the defendant completes his probationary period, he will not be a “convicted criminal with consequent loss of civil rights.”


If the Court Withheld Adjudication, is it Counted as a Conviction?

Because of the unique nature of a “withhold of adjudication” in Florida, questions often arise about whether the sentence counts as a conviction for some other purpose.

If the court withholds adjudication, does it count as a conviction? When the court withholds adjudication it does not count as a “conviction” for most purposes. In State v. McFadden, 772 So.2d 1209 (Fla.2000), the Florida Supreme Court adopted a definition of “conviction” that requires an adjudication of guilt or judgment of conviction by the trial court.

“[W]here the trial court withholds adjudication of guilt as authorized by statute and ‘stay[s] and withhold[s] the imposition of sentence,’ the court has found that ‘the defendant is not likely again to engage in a criminal course of conduct.’ ” McFadden, 772 So.2d at 1216 (quoting § 948.01(2), Fla. Stat. (1997)).

As the Florida Supreme Court recently recognized in Raulerson v. State, 763 So.2d 285 (Fla.2000), although an adjudication of guilt is generally required for there to be a “conviction,” that term as used in Florida law is a “ ‘chameleon-like’ term that has drawn its meaning from the particular statutory context in which the term is used.” Id. at 291 (quoting State v. Keirn, 720 So.2d 1085, 1086 (Fla. 4th DCA 1998)).

The court in Keirn concluded that “proper construction of the term ‘conviction’ requires a close examination of its statutory context and legislative history and development.” Id. at 1088.


Examples of When a Conviction Requires an Adjudication

Florida has a longstanding and consistent definition of “conviction” that requires an adjudication. For example, in State v. Barnes, 24 Fla. 153, 4 So. 560, 561 (1888), the court explained that although some definitions allow a finding of guilt to constitute a conviction, “numerous authorities [ ] hold the judgment or sentence to be a necessary component part of ‘conviction.'”

In Smith v. State, 75 Fla. 468, 78 So. 530, 532 (1918), the court held that when a “conviction” is an element of the offense, “[t]he meaning of the word ‘convicted’ as used in the statute … means the adjudication by the court of the defendant’s guilt.”

In Weathers v. State, 56 So.2d 536, 538 (Fla.1952), the court held that a “conviction” occurs when the jury returns a verdict of guilty and the judge “clinches the finding” by adjudicating the defendant’s guilt.

In Delta Truck Brokers, Inc. v. King, 142 So.2d 273, 275 (Fla.1962), the court found that “[t]he term ‘conviction’ has an accepted meaning in applying statutes of this nature [an auto transportation brokerage license statute]. It simply means a determination of guilt and a judgment of guilt by a court of competent jurisdiction in a criminal proceeding.” (bracketed material added)).

In Castillo v. State, 590 So.2d 458 (Fla. 3d DCA 1991), the court held that for prosecution under section 790.23 the courts construe the term “conviction” to mean an adjudication of guilt because “[w]here adjudication has been withheld, the offender is not a convicted felon.” Id. at 461.

In State v. Menuto, 912 So.2d 603 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005), the court held that for purposes of section 790.23(1)(a), “ ‘conviction’ means ‘adjudication of guilt’—a mere withhold of adjudication of guilt of the prior offense will not suffice.” Menuto, 912 So.2d at 605–06.


Examples of When a Conviction Includes a Withhold of Adjudication

The Fifth District in Clinger v. State, 533 So.2d 315, 316 (Fla. 5th DCA 1988), recognized that “for some limited purposes” the term conviction might mean a determination of guilt, regardless of whether adjudication was withheld.

For example, for purpose of sentencing under Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.701(d)(2), titled “Sentencing Guidelines,” the statute currently defines “conviction” as a determination of guilt resulting from a plea or trial, regardless of whether adjudication was withheld. See Fla. R.Crim. P. 3.701(d)(2).

So for some purposes in Florida, the definition of “conviction” or “convicted” expressly includes determinations of guilt for which adjudication was withheld. For example, § 112.3173, Fla. Stat., prohibits felons from beaching the public trust and expressly includes a determination of guilt when adjudication is withheld in the definition of conviction.

Other examples of a withhold of adjudication counting as a conviction include:

  • In § 775.13(1), Fla. Stat., the term “convicted” is defined to mean determination of guilt “regardless of whether adjudication is withheld,” for purpose of registering as a felon.
  • In § 775.084, Fla. Stat. , for purposes of sentence enhancement for habitual felony offenders, the statute expressly treats probation or community control without an adjudication of guilt as a prior conviction.
  • In § 943.0435(1)(b), Fla. Stat., for purpose of sex offender registration, the statute defines “convicted” to include a determination of guilt regardless of whether adjudication is withheld.

This article was last updated on Friday, August 31, 2018.

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