It is no secret that the penalties for criminal offenses in the State of Texas can be severe. Drug arrests and even DWI convictions can result in lengthy prison sentences. But in some cases, the court has the option to provide incentive with probation.
If you have been convicted or pled guilty to a crime, a Texas judge can sentence you to probation in some cases. In fact, most probated sentences in Texas are a result of a plea bargain negotiated between the defendant and the prosecutor.
It's not hard to see the appeal of taking a plea in exchange for probation. For most people, the idea of being incarcerated is terrifying. Many are quick to take a plea bargain if that means he or she can avoid jail time, even when the case against them isn't particularly strong. In many cases, it is the weak cases that prosecutors are most likely to make a deal on. But many times these plea bargains only tip the prosecutor's weak hand.
Attorney Doug Murphy is one of Houston's top criminal defense attorneys. In his many years of defending his clients on a wide range of charges, there are many cases his clients are best served by passing a plea bargain and going to trial. While probation may sound appealing, there are plenty of collateral consequences to a felony conviction that probation can't fix. What's more, when you are on probation, it is far easier for the state to send you to prison than if you were to defend the charges against you because you waived certain rights as part of the plea bargain process. To learn more about how preparing for trial can put you in the best position to get the outcome you want from your case, contact the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. today.
Overview of Probation in Texas
Ultimately, the purpose of probation is twofold – rehabilitate the offender and spare the state the cost of incarceration. The hope is that by sparing you some or all of your prison sentence, you will be better prepared to be a productive member of society moving forward. Additionally, probating the sentence of first-time offenders and those unlikely to offend again can remove some of the financial strain on the State of Texas.
But what is probation and how does it work?
What does probation mean in Texas?
Probation, formally referred to as "community supervision" in Texas, is a portion of a criminal sentence that is satisfied by supervision as opposed to incarceration in prison. It is a type of supervised sentencing similar to deferred adjudication. Probation differs from deferred adjudication, however, as it results in a conviction from a guilty or no contest plea. If you are placed on probation, the court sentences you to a term of incarceration, but places you on probation so that you can serve this sentence outside of prison so long as you meet certain conditions. While it is the judge's prerogative to probate some or all of your sentence if you are found guilty at trial, in many cases probation is made possible through a plea bargain.
In exchange for avoiding a jail or prison sentence, you will be required to meet certain conditions set by the court. A failure to do so will land you a probation violation charge that could require you to serve out your probated sentence in jail or prison. There are a wide variety of potential conditions that could apply in your case, including:
- Refrain from owning a firearm
- Find and maintain employment
- Enroll in school
- Meet regularly with your parole officer
- Avoid felons or other individuals
- Stay in the jurisdiction
- Submit to drug testing
- Abide by the curfew.
How does probation revocation work in Harris County, TX?
For many years, Texas law allowed a parole officer to determine the consequences of a parolee's violation. Not only would the officer determine if a violation occurred, but he would also hand down the sentence. But in 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled that parole officers could not simply return a parolee to prison. According to the court, this system violated a parolee's due process rights under the Constitution. The Supreme Court also determined that:
- Every parolee is entitled to a hearing on his or her parole revocation;
- Each parolee is entitled to an attorney at the hearing; and
- Each parolee is entitled to see the evidence to be presented against him or her.
The probation revocation process begins with a Motion to Revoke Probation filed by the prosecutor in your case. The motion will outline the violations you allegedly committed. The court will then issue a warrant for your arrest and set a date for your hearing.
In a probation revocation hearing, the burden of proof is lower than at a normal criminal trial. While the state is normally required to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard at a revocation hearing is only by the preponderance of the evidence.
The burden of proof isn't the only difference between a normal criminal proceeding and a revocation hearing. While in your original case you were entitled to a jury trial, all revocation hearings are held in front of a judge only.
Common Probation Violations in Harris County, TX
There are many ways in which you can violate the terms of your probation. In fact, it is not uncommon to have multiple violations charged at the same time. The best way to avoid a violation, however, is to understand and avoid the most common violations.
Some of the most common probation violations include:
Committing another crime – The most basic tenet of probation is that to avoid serving your sentence, you stay out of trouble. Committing an unrelated crime will not only bring potential penalties on its own, but it can also lead you to serve the rest of your probated sentence.
Missing a Court Date – When you receive a probated sentence, you will be required by the judge to attend all future court dates. If you fail to appear at a hearing, you could have violated your probation.
Failure to pay fines or restitution – In many cases, you will be ordered to pay a fine in addition to any jail sentence. And in instances where you damage property or injure another person, the court may require that you pay restitution to make the person "whole". If you fail to pay your fines or restitution, you could face a violation.
Missing an appointment with your probation officer – In most cases, you will be required to meet regularly with your probation officer. If you fail to make it to those meetings, it could land you back behind bars.
Avoiding community service – Another common sentence involves mandatory community service. Failing to comply can constitute a probation violation.
Out of work – In some cases, the court may require that you maintain adequate employment or enroll in school. Like any other term of your probation, failure to comply is a violation.
Violating other conditions – Every case is different, and it is possible the judge could make specific requirements in your case regarding who you can be around or where you can spend time. Violating these conditions is a good way to earn a probation violation charge.
Examples of Probation Violations in Houston, Texas
There are many ways that you could potentially violate your probation due to all the rules your freedom is conditioned on. Here are just a few examples of behavior that could lead to a violation.
Arrested for another Crime
You are on probation for a felony fraud conviction. This was your first brush with the law, and after pleading guilty the judge probated your sentence, allowing you to avoid prison time. Halfway through your probated sentence, you decide to start selling drugs to make ends meet. One night, you are arrested while in possession of a large amount of marijuana. In this situation, not only would you expect to be charged with a drug crime, but you would also likely face a revocation of your probation in your fraud case. It doesn't make any difference that the two crimes are unrelated. And even though this is your first violation, the court is likely to come down hard given your additional criminal charges.
You are on probation for felony drug possession. This was not the first time you have been arrested, but it is the first time you have been charged with a felony. After pleading guilty, most of your sentence was probated. One of the conditions of probation is the avoidance of any drugs or alcohol use or abuse. Despite this condition, you continue to consume marijuana and alcohol regularly. When your parole officer visits you unannounced, he finds you intoxicated. Even though you are in the safety of your own home, you have violated the terms of your probation and will likely face potential revocation. In this instance, the judge might be lenient and allow you to stay on probation with some modifications to the conditions you must abide by.
Failure to Keep Appointment with Probation Officer
You are on probation for felony drug possession. You have been arrested and convicted of numerous crimes over the years, and this is not your first felony. After pleading guilty, the judge agreed to probate most of your sentence so long as you meet a series of conditions. One of those conditions was to regularly check in with your parole officer. Despite this requirement, you blow off every meeting with your PO and never return his or her phone calls. Eventually, you are pulled over for speeding and arrested on a parole revocation warrant. Failure to meet your appointments with your parole officer is looked at very seriously by Texas judges. The judge will also consider your extensive criminal history, which is another strike against you. The odds are good in this situation you could expect to return to prison due to the revocation of your probation.
Consequences of a Probation Violation
While many judges show leniency upon a minor parole violation, it is possible that even the slightest of missteps could require you to serve out the remainder of your sentence behind bars. And if a judge issues a warrant for your arrest for a parole violation, it is likely that it will not include a bond. That means you will be stuck behind bars until your lawyer can ask the court to set a bond for you.
No two probation violations are exactly alike. For instance, you might get leniency if you miss a meeting with your parole officer due to traffic. But you probably won't get the same amount of leeway if you are arrested for a felony unrelated to your original charge. And while the outcome of your probation revocation will depend in part on the nature of your violation and the crime you have previously been convicted of, having your probation revoked is always a possibility.
The judge overseeing your revocation has a number of options when it comes to sentencing. These include:
- Continuing your probation with a warning under the same terms
- Adding additional terms to your probation
- Extending the term of your probation
- Finding you in contempt and sentencing you to no more than 30 days in jail
- Revoking your probation and ordering you to serve your jail sentence.
The key thing to consider when facing sentencing for a parole violation is that the judge will have tremendous discretion in your punishment. If you have a track record of complying with the conditions of your parole, the judge may prove to be lenient for a first-time violation. But repeated violations or serious conduct could land you behind bars for years to come.
Is it worth pleading guilty to get probation in Houston, Texas?
While probation may be tempting, in most cases pleading guilty to a charge is not in your best interest. By pleading guilty, you will not only give up many of your rights but also your chance to avoid a conviction entirely. What's more, it will be much easier for the state to penalize you going forward if you are on probation. Here are a few reasons why it is usually in your best interest to fight the charges against you.
Criminal Conviction on your Record
In order to take advantage of a prosecutor's offer of probation, you will be required to plead guilty. And while you may be able to avoid jail time, there are a number of other collateral consequences that can affect you for the rest of your life thanks to your felony conviction.
As a felon, you will lose your right to own a firearm or vote. You will also likely experience difficulty in maintaining employment or finding suitable living arrangements. Potential employers and landlords frequently use criminal background checks, and the conviction on your record could haunt you for years to come.
Waiving your Right to a Jury Trial and Appeal
In order to plead guilty and accept the plea bargain offered by the prosecutor, you will be required to forfeit your right to a jury trial or an appeal. Probation may let you avoid jail time in the short term, but it also robs you of the only avenue you have to avoid a conviction entirely. Your right to appeal is also important; if the trial court makes an error you still have a chance to fight the ruling at the appellate level. If you plead guilty, you waive these rights.
Increased Chances of Punishment Later
You are endowed with a multitude of rights when you defend yourself in a court of law. You have the right to a jury of your peers as opposed to having your case decided by a single judge. The state also faces a higher burden of proof at trial compared to a revocation hearing. The end result is that it is much easier for the State of Texas to put you behind bars after you go on probation than it would have been if you had gone to trial.
At a probation revocation hearing, you have no right to make your case to a jury. The state also needs only to prove that you are guilty by a preponderance of the evidence. This standard is much lower than the one the prosecutor is held to at trial. Given that your probation could last for years, you may spend an unfortunate amount of time trying to avoid having it revoked unfairly.
A Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer that will fight for You
If you have been charged with a serious crime in the Houston, Texas area, the odds are good the prosecutor in your case will eventually make you an offer. What that offer looks like will depend on your criminal history and the severity of the current charge against you. In some cases, that plea offer will include probation as opposed to spending time behind bars. While it may be tempting to jump at the chance to stay out of jail, you will be best served by discussing your case with an experienced Houston criminal defense lawyer.
Doug Murphy is a premier criminal defense attorney in Houston. A Board Certified expert in criminal defense law, Doug Murphy approaches every case as if it will ultimately go to trial. In his experience, his clients are best served by fighting the charges against them. And his track record shows that his approach works. To discuss your case, contact the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. today for a free consultation.