A defendant faced with criminal charges should understand the range of possible resolutions of his case. Sentences can have many facets and therefore be quite complicated. But having a general understanding of possible sentences helps when deciding how to proceed in the case.
Felony sentencing is governed by the Sentence Reform Act, a particularly long and complicated statute. Consequently, an attorney’s help is required to understand the possible sentencing options that a defendant should know. This letter will not attempt to explain felony sentencing.
Misdemeanors, on the other hand, are somewhat easier to understand. There are only two classes of misdemeanors, which are listed here along with their maximum penalties.
|Gross Misdemeanor||364 days||$5,000|
Upon conviction, a judge has discretion to sentence up to the maximum jail time and fine. But the most appropriate outcome of the case may not involve a conviction. What follows is a list of possible outcomes for misdemeanor crimes:
Dismissal. Of course, the most desirable outcome is the outright dismissal. A charge that is dismissed will still be on the defendant’s record. But only certain governmental agencies can obtain non-conviction criminal data. Employers and landlords, for example, will not see the dismissed charges. For most cases, only the prosecutor can dismiss a charge short of a trial. The judge can do so only if he finds that no reasonable jury could convict the defendant on the charge.
Pretrial Diversion Agreement. A pretrial diversion agreement is also called a stipulated order of continuance. It is a contract between the prosecutor and the defendant that is carried out for an agreed period of time, usually up to two years. The defendant is always obligated to not commit any crimes. He may also be obligated to obtain some kind of evaluation, such as a substance abuse evaluation, and seek some kind of treatment. There also may be alcohol and drug-related prohibitions. And he may be obligated to avoid contact with a crime victim. The prosecutor and defendant could negotiate virtually any condition tailored to the case. If the defendant successfully completes his obligations under the agreement, the prosecutor will be required to perform his end of the bargain, which is often a dismissal of the charges. The court cannot “order” a pretrial diversion agreement; the prosecutor must agree to it. The court’s role is simply to continue the case until the agreement can be fulfilled. If successful, the defendant avoids a conviction. There is a downside to a pretrial diversion agreement. Defendants are often required to give up certain rights, and by doing so make it easier for the prosecutor to get a conviction if the defendant does not successfully complete the agreement.
Deferred Prosecution. A deferred prosecution is similar to a pretrial diversion agreement. However, unlike the diversion agreement, the deferred prosecution is a program created by the legislature. This allows the judge to grant a defendant’s request for a deferred prosecution even over a prosecutor’s objection. Like a pretrial diversion agreement, if the defendant completes the program successfully, he avoids a conviction. This program is covered in another Information Letter.
Deferred Sentence. A deferred sentence is a sentencing option after a conviction only in a District Court. The judge defers imposition of the sentence for a period of time, usually up to two years, on certain conditions that the defendant must follow. These conditions look like a regular sentence. They can include jail time, a fine, treatment requirements, and other restrictions. However, if the defendant completes the conditions during the period of the deferral, the conviction is vacated and then dismissed. So, the defendant is “convicted” of the crime for the period of the deferral at which time the conviction goes away.
Suspended Sentence. For misdemeanors, unless imposing a deferred sentence, Washington courts typically impose the maximum sentence, e.g. 364 days and $5000 for a gross misdemeanor, and then suspend most or all of it. The defendant must serve and pay what is not suspended. For example, if sentencing a defendant convicted of a first offense of DUI with a blood-alcohol level of less than 0.15 ng/ml to the mandatory minimum sentence, the court will typically impose 364 days in jail with 363 of those days suspended, and a $5000 fine with $4650 suspended. The period of suspension must be two years or less for all crimes except DUI and domestic violence crimes, which must be less than five years. The judge imposes conditions on the suspension, which often include treatment requirements and other restrictions. If during the suspension period the defendant violates a condition of his suspension, the judge can “unsuspend” and impose a portion of the suspended jail time and/or fine. In this way, the judge has leverage to get the defendant to meet the conditions of his sentence.
There are many important details in sentences. Even a defendant who may be easy for the prosecutor to convict should consult with an attorney to help understand the sentencing alternatives.
If you have questions about any of this information, please ask.
This website provides general information to the public on legal issues. These informational materials are not intended, and should not be taken, as legal advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. You should contact Brandli Law for advice on specific legal problems.
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