What Does It Mean to Withhold Adjudication?

Bobby R. Goldsmith

When a judge decides to withhold adjudication, he or she typically stops just short of issuing a guilty verdict in a trial and releases the person charged to a program of probation or other service outside of jail time. Provided the person follows the probation terms exactly, the charges aren’t usually recorded on his or her official record, and don’t usually have to be disclosed on things like employment or school applications. Withheld adjudication isn’t allowed in all jurisdictions, and even where it is allowed, whether it is appropriate is usually a matter of judicial discretion. Attorneys often ask for it, but it’s never a legal requirement. Judges can usually decide based on any number of factors. In almost all cases, if the defendant violates the terms attached to the decision, a guilty verdict can attach automatically, often with maximum penalties; as such, it is something that defendants must take seriously and shouldn’t ask for if they aren’t willing to be extraordinarily compliant.

A judge will typically withhold adjudication for first-time offenders in cases in which no serious injuries, damage or loss to personal or public property occurred.
A judge will typically withhold adjudication for first-time offenders in cases in which no serious injuries, damage or loss to personal or public property occurred.

Understanding Adjudication Generally

In legal settings, the term “adjudication” simply refers to the final decision handed down in a case, usually innocent or guilty in criminal cases, or not liable or liable in civil matters. A judge typically enters any of these findings at the conclusion of a trial, after both sides have had a chance to present their arguments. Adjudications are normally recorded in the official court record, and usually have a number of implications, both legally and personally.

When It’s Applied

Withholding adjudication is used almost exclusively in criminal cases, and is most often applied in situations in which the defendant is eligible and sentenced for probation. Probation is often a way for people to receive a penalty for their actions without actually having to be incarcerated, and most of the time it’s applied in cases where the crime was serious but there’s reason to believe the offender has already learned from his or her mistakes and isn’t likely to offend again. It’s almost always the case that the offender has to admit guilt in order for the case to end in a withheld decision. The court simply accepts this admission and acts on it without making a formalized pronouncement or entering a guilty verdict.

Instead, the judge elects to bind the offender to a certain course of probation — often as a way of buying a way out of a conviction that would probably stay on a person’s record for many years. So long as the offender commits and adheres to the terms of probation, the charges will simply disappear. In many jurisdictions, a judge will only stop short of issuing an adjudication for first-time offenders in cases in which no serious injuries, damage or loss to personal or public property occurred.

Extenuating Circumstances

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 judgment 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 judgment to withhold is considered the equivalent of an actual conviction; the adjudication withheld refers only to a lack of formal punishment.

Administrative Implications

Withholdings are widely seen as advantageous for offenders, but they don’t always truly make the case and the actions giving rise to it disappear. For instance, 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 enter a withholding arrangement for someone with prior convictions.

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