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The term "withhold adjudication" means that a defendant who enters into a plea deal but does not explicitly plead guilty may have that guilty plea, and the penalties that such a plea may bring, “withheld” by the judge upon sentencing. Withholding adjudication is most often applied in cases in which the defendant is eligible and sentenced for probation; so long as the defendant commits and adheres to the terms of probation, the defendant will not have a formal conviction on his or her record if the judge decides to withhold adjudication. In many jurisdictions, a judge will only withhold adjudication for first-time offenders in cases in which no serious injuries, damage or loss to personal or public property occurred. Whether the case is tried as a misdemeanor or as a felony, a judge can withhold adjudication at his or her discretion.
There are, of course, numerous other types of adjudication findings in a criminal or civil case; the term “adjudication” simply refers to the final result of the case, meaning the penalty or sentencing is meted out. A judge presiding over a criminal case can find any one of several different results, from adjudication of guilt, to not guilty, to adjudication withheld.
Of course, the extenuating circumstances of withholding adjudication vary and are subject to the explicit regional laws and statutes that govern sentencing guidelines for convictions and probationary periods. While it is typical for a defendant's criminal record to be cleared after a judgement to withhold adjudication, the fact is that some jurisdictions do not allow this. In these areas, a withheld adjudication will still result in the defendant possessing a criminal record, even upon the successful completion of his or her probation.
For example, in many US states, previous convictions or guilty adjudications prevent the ability of the defendant from having a secondary or tertiary case sealed or suppressed through a withholding of adjudication. Under state law, a judgement to withhold adjudication is considered the equivalent of an actual conviction; the adjudication withheld refers only to a lack of formal punishment.
In fact, nearly all 50 US states and U.S. territories treat a withheld adjudication in a similar or equivalent fashion to an adjudication of guilt, at least on an administrative level. Many states make it fairly easy for a defendant to have a conviction record either fully sealed or expunged, however. Previous convictions, though, usually make it impossible for a defendant to successfully seal or expunge a current conviction. Most often a judge will not withhold adjudication whatsoever for a defendant with prior convictions.
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