Understanding First Offender Pleas in Georgia
Pleading guilty to even a minor criminal charge can have steep consequences, even if you have never committed a crime before. Fortunately, Georgia law recognizes that many first-time offenders genuinely regret their actions and are unlikely to reoffend. A single mistake does not have to define your entire life, and Georgia’s legal system offers various avenues that can help ensure this will not happen. Contact the Don Turner Legal Team if you have questions about the different types of first offender pleas in Georgia and how they might affect your case.
Georgia’s First Offender Program
The First Offender Act is a program that allows certain individuals to plead guilty or nolo contendere (“no contest”) to certain charges but avoid a criminal conviction. Be aware that you will not automatically qualify for first offender status simply because it is your first time being charged. If you have been charged with driving under the influence, a serious sexual offense, child pornography, or a violent felony, you will not be eligible. Being convicted of a felony in any state will also render you unable to qualify as a first offender.
Being eligible for a first offender sentence does not mean you will automatically get one. That is ultimately up to the discretion of the judge, and if they deny your request, that decision cannot be appealed. If you are granted first offender status, you will still need to serve the terms of your sentence, including probation and possible jail time. Failure to do so will lead to your first offender status being revoked and you being convicted. However, upon successful completion of your sentence, your case will be disposed of without a conviction.
The First Offender Act can also lead to your charge being sealed from your record. Specifically, the judge can keep the first offender status from being spread, order the Clerk of Court to seal the case information, and order law enforcement agencies to limit any access to information regarding your first offender status. Before 2016, this could not be done until the sentence was complete. As of 2016, judges can now restrict first offender records at the time of sentencing.
Note that your attorney will need to ask your judge to restrict your record at the time of your plea. The court will also weigh the public interest and the potential harm to your own privacy when deciding whether or not to restrict your records. Your attorney will need to establish why leaving your record unsealed could cause you harm. Also know that it may take up to 30 days for law enforcement and 90 days for the court to completely seal your records.
Pre-Trial Diversion Programs
Pre-trial diversion programs are another alternative to sentencing that may be available to first-time offenders in certain cases. Non-violent offenses such as shoplifting, possession of marijuana, or certain traffic offenses are often referred to these programs. Not every court offers a pre-trial diversion program, although you may be able to transfer your case to one that does. Failure to complete these programs will lead to your case being prosecuted as normal.
A pre-trial diversion program will ask you to complete certain requirements, which can include the payment of a fine, Alcohol and Drug Risk Reduction Courses, community service, and probation. The requirements of the program are typically based around the original offense and are meant as both a punishment and way to educate the offender, in order to ensure the offense does not happen again. Once you successfully complete this program, your charges will be dismissed and potentially expunged from your record.
If you are a first-time drug offender in Georgia, you may have the option of entering a conditional discharge program. Conditional discharge can only be used once and only in relation to drug crimes. It allows the court to place any first-time offender found guilty of drug crimes under probation for no more than three years for a drug crime and no more than five for a property crime caused by substance abuse. Said offender may also be required to undergo a rehabilitative program, including medical treatment, as part of their sentence.
Successful completion of a conditional discharge sentence will lead to your drug and/or drug-related property crimes being dismissed. This will keep drug charges, which can have a devastating impact on your future prospects, off of your record. However, if you fail to complete a conditional discharge program, the court may enter a guilty judgment and sentence you to the maximum possible sentence for the crime you were charged with.
Named for Stinson v. State, a Stinson plea is an option that may be available to you as a first offender. A Stinson plea, which is frequently entered before the client enters a pre-trial diversion program, is a plea of “guilty” that results in probation and conditions that, if fulfilled, will lead to the guilty plea being withdraw. It is similar to a first offender sentence in Georgia – the crucial difference is that a first offender sentence will show the client as not being convicted, while a Stinson plea will show them as not being prosecuted.
Know Your Options as a First Offender
Everyone makes mistakes – unfortunately, sometimes, these mistakes can lead to you facing criminal charges. A guilty plea on your record can have a detrimental effect on the rest of your life, which is why it is important to know that you have options as a first-time offender. We all deserve a second chance for our mistakes, and you should be able to have one. If you are a first-time offender, contact our law firm and learn about your possible plea options.