Non lawyers are often confused when it comes to legal terminology. You could be facing a Florida criminal offense (misdemeanors or felony.) In the alternative, it might be a traffic ticket. Regardless of the charge, many people believe that if they plead “guilty,” they will be convicted of the offense. ” Similarly, it is an urban legend that if you plead “no contest” or “nolo contendere” you avoid conviction. In reality, the nature of your plea has nothing to do with the formal outcome or sentence that is thereafter imposed by the judge in your case.
What is the difference between “no contest’ and a “guilty” plea?
“No Contest” pleas are commonly used when there is an accident or injury associated with the charge. The party in the wrong is concerned about the prospect of a subsequent civil law suit for monetary damages. A “no contest” plea is not admissible or relevant in later civil litigation. Therefore, from a strategy standpoint, it sometimes makes good sense to plead “no contest.”
A “guilty” plea in traffic or criminal court can later be used by the victim to help prove your negligence in a subsequent civil law suit. A “guilty” plea is therefore an admission or acceptance of guilt. Whereas, a plea of “no contest plea” or “nolo contendere” plea means that I am not going to admit my guilt. But at the same time, I do not want my case to proceed to trial. I just won’t contest the charge.
The difference between “adjudication” and “withhold of adjudication”?
This brings us to the Judge’s actions or formal findings after he accepts your “guilty” or “no contest” plea. In most cases, the Judge has the power to “adjudicate” or to “withhold adjudication.” In simple terms, an “adjudication” means you are “convicted,” whereas a “withhold of adjudication” means that although you are being sentenced and penalties are being imposed, you are not going to suffer the stigma and collateral consequences of a formal conviction. This discretion is afforded the judge pursuant to Florida Statute Section 948.01. A “withhold of adjudication” associated with a felony would prevent you from being a convicted felon. A “withhold” of adjudication associated with a traffic infraction or ticket would prevent you from receiving points on your driving record that could otherwise impact your insurance premiums or possibly jeopardize your driving privileges.
Benefits of a Withhold of Adjudication
- Avoids being a convicted felon;
- Avoids losing your right to vote, hold public office or serve on a jury;
- Allows you to check the box “no” on an employment application that asks “Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offense?”;
- Avoids being convicted of damaging misdemeanors associated with untruthfulness or dishonesty. (For example, worthless check or theft related offenses.);
- May avoid a habitual traffic offender designation that otherwise carries a mandatory administrative five year drivers license suspension;
- Avoids an otherwise mandatory one year drivers license suspension associated with a misdemeanor or felony dug conviction;
- Avoids some felony enhancements caused by a prior misdemeanor offense;
- Avoids points being assessed against your drivers license;
- Prevents automatic disqualification from several areas of employment;
- Prevents automatic disqualification from obtaining many occupational or professional licenses;
- In the case of felonies, prevents automatic disqualification to own, use or possess a firearm;
- May set you up to have your Pinellas county record of arrest sealed;
Having an experienced Pinellas county lawyer evaluate the individual facts and circumstances of your case, along with your ultimate objective is critical. For example, you might think that to “play it safe”, you need to always pursue a “no contest” plea coupled with a “withholding of adjudication.” But it is just not that simple. Take for example the following offenses:
Florida Statute Section 316.074(1) Disregard Traffic Control Device
Florida Statute Section 316.075(1)(c)(1) Disregard Traffic Lights
Florida Statute Section 316.172 Failure to Stop for a School Bus
If you were to enter a no “contest plea” in connection with any of the above charges, Florida Statute Section 322.0261(4)(a) mandates that the DHSMV require you to attend and complete a driver improvement course within 90 days or suffer a drivers license suspension. Note that this provision applies even if you benefitted from a withholding of adjudication.
With respect to these limited charges, a “guilty plea” coupled with a “withhold of adjudication” would eliminate your need to attend the driver improvement course. Although, keep in mind that if your case involves an accident, a “guilty plea” would be an admission to your negligence in operating a motor vehicle. As such, it could come back to haunt you in the event of a subsequent civil lawsuit. Given these types of complexities in the law, getting the advice and assistance of an attorney is the only prudent course of action to protect your best interests.
There are other times when a no contest plea and withhold of adjudication are not the “saving grace.” For example, Rule XXIV of the Pinellas County Employment Handbook reveals that an employee could be suspended after the entry of a “plea of guilty” or “no contest” to any 1st degree misdemeanor or felony offense, regardless if adjudication was withheld (Subsection 30). The employee could be terminated after the entry of a “plea of guilty” or “no contest” for any offense involving moral turpitude, regardless if adjudication was withheld (Subsection 31).
Those persons subject to immigration proceedings have likewise found that the federal government equates a “withhold of adjudication” with a conviction. This problem exists because there are no parallel legal provisions within the federal court system. It is not uncommon to have immigration lawyers working hand in hand with criminal defense attorneys in an effort to secure a formal outcome that may avoid deportation.
With some criminal offenses, the Florida Legislature has taken away the judge’s discretion to withhold a formal adjudication of guilt. Perhaps, the most common example of this is DUI (See: Florida Statute Section 316.656 which expressly requires an adjudication of guilt.) It also encompasses any felony offense that carries a mandatory minimum period of incarceration, for example Drug Trafficking. A skilled attorney can sometimes sidestep this problem by successfully negotiating with the prosecutor to amend the criminal charge to an offense that would otherwise not prohibit a withhold.
Under Florida Statute Section 775.08435, the Circuit Court Judge is likewise precluded from summarily withholding adjudication in second degree felony cases. However, the court still has the discretion to avoid a formal conviction if your lawyer files a written motion on your behalf and is successful in convincing the court that your individual circumstances fall within one of the mitigated provisions outlined under Florida Statute Section 921.0026.
The Time to Act is Now
If you have been arrested for a criminal offense, the time to protect your reputation is now. Don’t subject yourself to a major impact on your life that could result from a seeming minor nuance in legal jargon. Trying to later fix the wrong outcome in your case could be expensive and uncertain. While your case is pending, your lawyer will have greater leverage in his efforts to achieve your objectives.
Call us for a free consultation and let’s discuss all of your options.
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