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In Florida, When a Defendant is Sentenced to Probation, Can That Probation Period Be Terminated Early?

In Florida, when a defendant pleads guilty or no contest to a criminal charge or is found guilty after a trial, the judge will sentence that defendant.  A sentence can involve jail or prison time or a term of probation, or both.  If a person is sentenced to probation, that means the person will be under the supervision of the court, by way of a probation officer, and will likely have to complete certain requirements as part of that probation.  For instance, the judge may order three years of probation and require the defendant to pay money back to the victim, complete community service hours, take certain classes, complete some type of treatment and/or certain other conditions.  The expectation is that the defendant will complete those requirement before the probation term ends.  If the defendant fails to complete the requirements set forth by the judge or gets arrested for a new crime on probation, the defendant will be subject to a violation of probation charge which could result in more conditions, more probation and/or incarceration.

On the other hand, if the defendant does well on probation and finishes his/her conditions early, the judge might allow the defendant to get off probation early.  It is always a good idea to get off probation early, if possible, for a few reasons.  One, if a person gets arrested for a new charge while on probation, it is worse for that person because it gives the state much more leverage.  The state would have two separate cases against the defendant, one for the new charge and another for the violation of probation.  If the evidence in the new case is not very strong, perhaps not good enough to sustain a new criminal case, the state may still be able to go forward with a violation of probation since the legal standard to violate a person’s probation based on a new charge is much lower than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard for a new criminal case.  Basically, if the judge (not a jury) finds it is more likely than not that the defendant committed a new crime while on probation, the judge can violate the defendant’s probation and put the defendant back in jail.

Two, probation costs money and takes time.  There are supervision fees and reporting requirements even after the defendant has completed the probation requirements as long as he/she is still on probation.  Three, if a person received a withhold of adjudication (which means the defendant was technically not convicted of the crime under Florida law), that privilege is not vested until probation is finished and terminated.  Likewise, if a person is eligible to seal his/her criminal record after a withhold of adjudication, a very helpful mechanism for people who do not want future employers and others to see the criminal record in the future, the defendant is not eligible to have his/her record sealed until probation is completed.

One tool that conscientious defendants use when they are on probation and finished with their specific conditions is to ask the court to terminate their probation early.  This may require hiring a criminal defense lawyer who can file the motion to terminate the probation early and make the appropriate arguments.  Under the right circumstances, the judge will agree, and the probation will be finished immediately.  Other times, the criminal defense can get the judge to agree to early termination of probation at the time of sentencing once the conditions are completed.  If the judge puts this in the sentence, early termination is usually automatic once the probation requirements have been completed.

On the other hand, at sentencing, can the judge order that the defendant cannot seek early termination?  According to some recent cases near Jacksonville, Florida, the judge is not authorized to make no early termination a condition or any part of a sentence.  In other words, the sentencing judge cannot prohibit early termination of probation at the time of sentencing.  The case law encourages judges to consider terminating probation early if the defendant has been a good probationer and completed all of the conditions of probation.  Not only does it encourage defendants to be diligent on probation, probation uses taxpayer money and government resources and early termination of probation can help the criminal justice system run more efficiently.

That being said, the judge still has to grant a motion to terminate probation early, and there is no law that requires him or her to do so even if the defendant completed all of the requirements quickly and has been a perfect probationer.