When it comes to being charged with a crime, there are few jurisdictions that carry punishment as severe as the State of Texas. Whether you have been charged with a drug crime, driving while intoxicated, or another criminal offense, it is likely the punishment you could face is serious. In Texas, many judges take the opportunity to hand down heavy jail sentences and fines. But in some cases, the judge in your case may decide that leniency is more appropriate. In these cases, the court may agree to what's known as deferred adjudication.
Deferred adjudication is essentially a form of probation. This form of probation is used frequently in Texas. In fact, one out of every four district court cases ends in a deferred judgment. But unlike traditional probation that is handed out after a guilty plea is entered, deferred adjudication comes before a final judgment of guilty is entered. If you meet certain conditions set out by the court, your case will not result in a finding of guilty and will be dismissed without the entry of a criminal conviction on your record. While such an arrangement may sound appealing, there are serious considerations that should be made before you agree to deferred adjudication. While the potential for avoiding jail or prison time may be tempting, a plea agreement involving a deferred adjudication can make things worse in some cases. Before you enter into a plea bargain with the prosecutor, you should discuss your case with an experienced Houston criminal defense lawyer.
Doug Murphy is one of the top Houston criminal defense attorneys. During his career, he has learned that in most cases his clients are best served by fighting the charges against them. While it may be tempting to agree to a plea bargain that includes deferred adjudication, the truth is plea bargain comes at a price of waiving your most important fundamental constitutional rights. Before accepting a plea bargain in a Harris County court, contact the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. to learn about your options.
What is Deferred Adjudication in Texas?
Deferred adjudication provides defendants with an opportunity to plead guilty to a charge, but potentially avoid ever having a conviction on their record. Deferred adjudication is only possible through a guilty plea, and is typically part of a plea bargain agreed to between the defendant and the prosecutor. It can also be provided by a judge with a plea to the court without an agreed recommendation for punishment.
With deferred adjudication, a defendant must plead guilty. However, deferred adjudication differs from a standard guilty plea in that the judge defers finding the defendant guilty immediately. The case remains open while the defendant completes certain probationary conditions set out by the court. If these probation conditions are met, the judge will dismiss the case instead of finding the defendant guilty. If the conditions are not met, the court will proceed with the finding of guilt--and could sentence the defendant to jail or prison within the full range of punishment.
The conditions that apply to a deferred adjudication vary from one case to another and are at the discretion of the judge. Some common conditions that are frequently required in deferred adjudication cases include:
- Regular meetings with a probation officer
- Paying all costs and fees
- Community service
- Court-ordered counseling
- Maintaining employment
- Avoiding drugs or alcohol
- Avoiding additional criminal behavior
Deferred Adjudication vs. Straight Probation in Harris County, TX
While deferred adjudication is a type of probation, it differs significantly from the standard, or “straight,” probation. The primary difference between the two is that straight probation includes a conviction on your criminal record while deferred adjudication does not. In other words, under straight probation, the judge will accept your guilty plea and sentence you. With deferred adjudication, the court will put off accepting your plea or entering a sentence.
An illustration is helpful to understand the difference. First, consider a case under straight probation:
You have been arrested and charged with a second degree of felony possession of a controlled substance. A second-degree felony carries a range of punishment from 2 years to 20 years in prison. The prosecutor in your case offers you straight probation if you plead guilty. You agree to plead guilty, and the judge accepts your guilty plea. The judge sentences you to five years but probates your sentence. You are now a convicted felon with a criminal record, but you will not serve any of your prison sentences as long as you don't violate the conditions of your probation.
In the event you violate the terms of your probation, the maximum time the judge could sentence you to prison is not more than 5 years.
Now consider the same case under deferred adjudication:
You have been arrested and charged with a second degree of a felony possession of a controlled substance. A second-degree felony carries a range of punishment from 2 years to 20 years in prison. The prosecutor in your case offers you a 5 years prison on a 5-year deferred adjudication if you agree to plead guilty. You accept the deal and enter a guilty plea before the court. However, the judge defers accepting your guilty plea with the intent of dismissing the case after a set amount of time if you meet certain conditions. If the judge dismisses your case, you will not serve any part of your prison sentence or have a conviction on your record.
In the event you violate the terms of your deferred adjudication probation, and a judge after a hearing determines those allegations to be true, the maximum time the judge could sentence you to prison is not just 5 years--it could be up to the maximum punishment of 20 years. Because the judge never entered a finding of guilty, you are open to the full range of punishment, which in this second-degree felony example is 2- 20 years in prison.
Motion to Adjudicate Guilt in Harris County, Texas
If you violate any of the conditions required under your plea agreement, the prosecutor in your case can ask the court to accept your guilty plea and immediately sentence you. In order to make this request, the prosecutor in your case must file what's known as a Motion to Adjudication Guilt. This motion leads to a hearing before the judge in your case. If the judge agrees with the prosecutor that the terms of the deferred adjudication have been violated, the court will find you guilty and enter a conviction against you. From there, you will be sentenced according to the sentencing guidelines that apply to your original charge.
Common Violations in Houston
The common violations of a deferred adjudication agreement are generally the same as in straight probation. Every case is different, and the potential violations depend on the conditions set by the court. Here are a few of the most common violations:
Committing a Crime – Under any deferred adjudication agreement, committing another crime is an easy way to have your guilty plea entered. It makes no difference if the new crime is related to your original charge or not; additional lawbreaking will cost you.
Missing a Court Date –In most cases, your case will be put on hold until your either your deferment period is completed or the prosecutor files a motion to adjudicate. With that being the case, it is possible that you won't have a court date during that time frame. But if for some reason you are required to appear in court, failing to do so would be another potential violation.
Failure to Pay Restitution – If you damaged the property of another person during the commission of your alleged crime, the court may require you to pay for those damages through a process known as restitution. If restitution is a condition of your deferred adjudication, failure to pay could lead to a motion to adjudicate your guilt.
Failure to Pay Court Costs – In addition to restitution, you may also be required to pay court costs. Court costs are the amount the state claims they spent in order to prosecute you. In other words, you are reimbursing the state for your own prosecution. Like with restitution, if you fail to pay after being ordered to, you could be in violation of your plea agreement.
Skipping Court-Ordered Counseling – If you are arrested for a DWI or drug crime, it is possible that one condition of your deferred sentence is attending some form of substance abuse counseling. Likewise, if you have been charged with a violent crime you may be required by the court to complete anger management. In any of these cases, failure to complete the required counseling could result in a violation.
Missing an Appointment with your Probation Officer – You can expect to have a probation officer you'll be required to report to; especially in a felony case. If you have an appointment scheduled but fail to attend, your probation officer will likely contact the prosecutor to let them know.
Using Drugs or Alcohol – In many cases, the court will order you to avoid using illicit drugs or alcohol. This is especially common in cases involving DWI or drug use. If you fail a drug test, you could lose your deferred status. And if you are arrested for a new drug or alcohol-related offense, you aren't off the hook even if those charges are dropped. It's possible the prosecutor might find enough evidence to void your deferred sentence even if there wasn't enough to convict you of a new crime.
Interacting with Certain Individuals – Another common condition set out by Texas courts is a ban on interacting with certain people. If you have been charged with a drug crime, you may be barred from being around anyone else know to use or sell drugs. If your case stems from an allegation of assault or harassment, you could also be ordered to avoid the alleged victims in your case.
Failure to Complete Community Service – In some cases, the court may order you to complete a certain number of hours of community service. Typically, the type of service must be approved by the court ahead of time. If you fail to meet this requirement, you could face a motion to adjudicate guilt.
Losing Your Job – Maintaining employment is another common condition that can apply in any type of criminal case. If you fail to keep a steady job, the court may revoke your deferred sentence. However, the judge and prosecutor may treat you with leniency if you have made an effort to find new employment.
Consequences of Violating Terms and Conditions in Houston, TX
If the prosecutor in your case files a motion to adjudicate guilt in your case, a warrant for your arrest will be issued. Once you are in custody, you will be brought before the court to determine if you violated the conditions of your deferred adjudication. If the judge agrees that you have, your punishment will be up to the court. For minor violations, you may get off with a warning or simply have additional conditions placed upon you. But if the judge believes your conduct is serious enough, he or she will enter your guilty plea. This will terminate your agreement with the prosecutor, place a criminal conviction on your record, and move your case to the sentencing phase. Just like at the trial level, you are entitled to representation from an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney at the hearing for the motion to adjudicate guilt.
If the judge decides to find you guilty, it will be as if you simply plead guilty at your arraignment without any sort of plea bargain or recommendation from the prosecutor. The sentence is entirely up to the judge, so long as it fits within the framework outlined by Texas law.
For example, if you are found guilty of home burglary pursuant to Texas Penal Code 30.02, you could face between 2 and 20 years in prison for a second-degree felony. If you have no prior criminal record, the prosecutor and the judge may agree to defer adjudication in exchange for a guilty plea. In that case, you would plead guilty before the court but have your sentencing delayed in order to meet the conditions set out by the judge. If you meet these conditions by the end of the period of deferment, the judge will dismiss the case against you. But if you violate those conditions, the prosecutor may file a motion to adjudicate guilt and ask the court to sentence you. In that case, you could be sentenced to a maximum of 20 years. This is in stark contrast to a violation of straight probation. If you had pleaded guilty and been sentenced to 9 years of probation, your maximum possible sentence for the probation violation would be the 9 years you were sentenced to. In other words, while the potential benefits of deferred adjudication are great, so is the risk involved.
Is deferred adjudication in Texas worth it?
On the surface, entering a guilty plea in order to have adjudication of your case deferred may seem appealing. However, there are plenty of negatives that make deferred adjudication a bad idea in most cases. When you enter a guilty plea, you are giving up substantial rights that you won't be able to get back. Here are just a few of the reasons why it makes sense to fight the charges against you.
You Waive Your Right to a Trial or Appeal in Harris County
If everything goes right with your deferred adjudication, you may avoid a criminal conviction on your record. But the only way to ensure you aren't convicted of a crime is by prevailing at trial. You are entitled to a trial before a jury of your peers, but if you plead guilty you give up that right forever. That right is gone even if you change your mind later, or if you want a trial after the prosecutor files a motion to adjudicate your guilt.
By pleading guilty, you also waive your right to an appeal. Normally, if you are convicted at trial you have the right to appeal your case. If the judge made a mistake at your trial, you will have the opportunity to have an appellate court review your claims.
You Will Incur Additional Costs
Like all forms of probation, you will be required to pay for the costs of your adjudication. Unfortunately, those costs can run in the thousands of dollars. While some are put off by the thought of paying for an attorney instead of settling their case on their own, the truth is the costs associated with deferred adjudication can match or exceed the cost of your defense. These additional costs are only one of the downsides associated with pleading guilty.
Potential for Maximum Punishment in Harris Couty
The biggest drawback of deferred judgment compared to straight probation is the potential for being sentenced to the maximum. With straight probation, the sentence is agreed to by you, the prosecutor, and the court. If your probation is revoked, you know exactly what your sentence will be because you agreed to it previously. In most cases, that sentence is less than the maximum possible sentence available.
But with deferred adjudication, you agree to plead guilty without having any say in what your potential sentence might be. And if your guilt is eventually adjudicated, your sentence is in the hands of the judge in your case. In many cases, it is possible you could face a tougher sentence than if you had simply pleaded guilty with a recommendation of straight probation. And while a Houston criminal defense attorney will have a chance to make a case for a lighter sentence at your sentencing hearing, your chance of being acquitted will be long gone.
How the Right Houston Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help
If you are a first-time offender facing a serious criminal charge in the Houston, Texas area, it is possible the prosecuting attorney in your case may offer you deferred adjudication. And while the possibility of avoiding a criminal conviction will be tempting, it is critical that you understand the potential pitfalls you face if you plead guilty. To fully grasp the consequences of a plea bargain, you should contact an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney right away.
Doug Murphy is an experienced criminal defense attorney that has earned the reputation of being one of the best lawyers in Houston. A board-certified expert in criminal defense law, Doug Murphy knows the value of fighting the charges against his clients at trial. That's why he approaches every case as if it would ultimately be tried in front of a jury. To discuss your case with Houston's top criminal defense attorney, contact the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. today for a free consultation.