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Deferred adjudication is a plea bargain agreement in U.S. trial law that allows certain criminal defendants to avoid the chance of conviction in exchange for a stipulated plea and supervised probation. When a court offers a defendant a deferred adjudication, the court is basically offering the person a way to delay formal judgment by admitting to the crime, then participating in probation. If the defendant fails to live up to conditions of the probation, the trial will start; if the defendant succeeds, the trial is canceled and the defendant does not receive a criminal record. Not all U.S. states permit deferred adjudication, and those that do have very different standards regarding what sorts of crimes are eligible for deferment, what kind of probation is appropriate, and whether records of the deferment are published, among other things.
Deferred adjudication is authorized by a state’s statutory code and is offered at the discretion of the court, usually with the recommendation of the prosecutor. Although the terms of the offer vary based on state law and the court’s assessment of each case, most deferments are offered to first-time offenders of more minor crimes such as shoplifting, driving under the influence without injury, and drug possession. Deferments are usually offered when the court believes the defendant’s criminal behavior was a one-time event that is not likely to be repeated and can be corrected with probation. Probation can range from community service to participation in drug and alcohol treatment programs, and always carries the requirement that the defendant not be arrested again.
A defendant who is offered a deferred adjudication need not accept it and, as with all things, there are pros and cons attached to either decision. A deferment can be positive for a defendant who believes he will be convicted if the case goes to trial. Deferred adjudication essentially puts the court’s conviction decision on hold and, provided the defendant successfully completes the terms of the probation, conviction will never attach.
On the other hand, deferment in all jurisdictions requires the defendant to plead either “guilty” or “no contest,” which is a tacit admission of guilt. These pleas can prove damaging to defendants in some circumstances. Many applications for academic programs, jobs, and volunteer work, for instance, ask applicants not only whether they have ever been convicted, but whether they have ever pled guilty to any crime. Deferred adjudication defendants would have to answer “yes.”
Record of the defendant’s arrest, plea, and deferment election may also become public. Some states will automatically expunge records of the proceedings once a defendant successfully completes probation, but some require the records to be published, at least for a certain amount of time. Still other states allow for expungement, but only if specific petitions are filed.
Deferred adjudication can carry with it significant benefits for both defendants and the court. What precisely an adjudication will require or convey cannot be answered without an examination of the local law, however, and there are no universal rules governing how deferments must be presented or applied. Defendants wondering if their cases are eligible for deferred adjudication, or deciding whether to accept an offered deferment, should consult an attorney familiar with the laws of the court’s jurisdiction.
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