The Georgia First Offender Act

The First Offender Act is a progressive statute implemented by the State of Georgia where a person who has never been convicted of a prior felony offense can be sentenced on a pending charge, but subsequently, have those charges sealed by the court if he/she successfully completes their First Offender sentence.

According to O.C.G.A. § 42-8-60, the accused may be eligible under the First Offender Act if the following statements are true:

  • The accused has never been convicted of a felony;
  • The accused have never been previously sentenced under the First Offender Act;
  • The offense charged is not a serious crime committed against a law enforcement officer engaged in his/her duties;
  • The offense charged is not Driving Under the Influence (O.C.G.A. § 40-6-391);
  • The offense charged is not a serious violent felony (O.C.G.A. § 17-10-6.1);
  • The offense charged is not a serious sexual offense (O.C.G.A. § 17-10-6.2);
  • The offense charged is not related to child pornography (O.C.G.A. § 17-10-100.2);
  • The offense charged is not related to electronic sexual exploitation of a minor, computer pornography (O.C.G.A. § 17-10-100);
  • The offense charged is not trafficking of persons for labor or sexual servitude (O.C.G.A. § 16-5-46); and
  • The offense charged is not neglecting disabled adults or elderly people (O.C.G.A. § 16-5-101).

HOW IT WORKS

Trial counsel for the accused must ask the judge to sentence him/her under the First Offender Act. Then, the judge will consider whether to sentence the accused to First Offender after he/she hears arguments from both the prosecution and the defense. If the judge sentences the accused under First Offender, his/her official criminal history will describe the disposition of the crime charged as “First Offender” until the sentencing term is successfully completed. If the accused violates any conditions placed on him/her during their term of sentence, including committing another crime, the judge has the discretion to revoke the First Offender status. This means that the accused will be sentenced and convicted, which will be shown on his/her official criminal history. In revoking one’s status, the judge does have discretion to sentence the accused to the maximum penalty for the crime charged. However, if the term of sentence is successfully completed, the clerk of court will seal the offense charged from his/her official criminal history.

CONTACT US

At the Law Offices of W. Scott Smith, our attorneys are knowledgeable about the consequences of a criminal conviction on one’s record, as well as all possible options for our clients dealing with pending allegations. Therefore, if you have been recently arrested on a criminal charge or your case is currently pending, please call our office today at 404-581-0999 for a free consultation.

Georgia Criminal Law – Possession of Firearm by Convicted Felon

A felony conviction has serious consequences. It remains on your criminal record permanently, making jobs and housing extremely difficult to obtain. Aside from incarceration, probation, fines, counseling, and other conditions the sentencing judge may impose, a felony conviction also strips away certain constitutional rights. One of these rights is the right to possess a firearm. In enacting the below statute prohibiting the possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, the General Assembly has sought to keep guns out of the hands of those individuals who by their prior conduct have demonstrated they may not possess a firearm without being a threat to society. This article will explain the three key components of the criminal offense, the punishment, and defenses.

The Offense

It is illegal for any person who has been convicted of a felony to possess a firearm. O.C.G.A. § 16-11-131.

Felony convictions include: any person who is on felony first offender probation, felony conditional discharge probation, or has been convicted of a felony in Georgia or any other state (also includes U.S. territories and courts of foreign nations).

A “firearm,” includes any handgun, rifle, shotgun, or other weapon which will or can be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive or electrical charge. Therefore, toys or non-functioning replicas do not qualify as weapons. However, it is important to note that even disassembled firearms or even projectiles by themselves constitute “firearms” under the statute.

To prove possession, the prosecution must establish has two requirements, a culpable mental state and the act of possessing a firearm. First, the prosecution must establish the person knowingly possessed  a firearm. Knowledge can be proven through direct evidence (person’s statement admitting possession) or through circumstantial evidence (firearm found on person’s bed side table and nobody else had access to the house). Possession can be further broken down into two categories, actual and constructive possession. Actual possession is what it sounds like. If you have a firearm in your hand (or holster, or in your waistband), you are in actual possession of a firearm. Constructive possession, however, is a situation where you have control or dominion over property without being in actual possession of it. For example, imagine you are seated in the front passenger seat of a vehicle along with the driver. The vehicle is pulled over, searched by police, and illegal drugs are found in the center console. Although neither you nor the driver was in actual possession of the drugs, you are both arguably in constructive possession of the drugs because of your mutual ability to access and control of the drugs.

Punishment

A person convicted of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon shall be sentenced to no less than one year and no more than ten years. If this is a second or subsequent conviction, the person shall be sentenced to prison for no less than five and no more than ten years. If the underlying felony was a “forcible felony” the person shall be sentenced to five years imprisonment. A forcible felony is defined as, “any felony involving the use or threat of physical force or violence against any person . . .”

Defenses

There are several defenses available to a person charged with this offense. One is to challenge the underlying conviction. If the conviction is not a felony or was a felony but was discharged under the First Offender Act or conditional discharge sentence, then there is no underlying felony. This offense also does not apply to those who have been convicted but had their convictions pardoned by the state.

The next available defense is to challenge the required mental state; that the person was “knowingly” in possession of a firearm. You cannot be in possession of something that you have no knowledge of.

The defense may also challenge whether the person was in constructive possession. In Harvey v. State, the court found insufficient evidence the defendant was in constructive possession of a firearm (by a convicted felon) even though defendant’s name appeared on documents in closet of apartment where firearm was found; the gun was found on the floor next to an unidentified individual, defendant’s name was not on the lease, and defendant had no belongings inside the apartment. 344 Ga.App. 7 (2017).

Contact Us

If you or someone you know has been arrested, contact the law firm of W. Scott Smith at 404.581.0999 today for a free case evaluation. You’ll find a local Atlanta attorney ready to aggressively fight on your behalf. You can also find out more detailed information about Atlanta laws here.

Does a Marijuana Charge Stay on Your Record in Georgia?

by Mary Agramonte

As more states in the United States legalize recreational marijuana use, you may wonder if Georgia still treats marijuana convictions the same as they used to. As of January 1, 2020, recreational marijuana was legal for adults in 11 states, and medical marijuana was legal in 33 states. Yet, while some has changed, the law in Georgia regarding misdemeanor marijuana has stayed the same. The short answer is that prosecutors and law enforcement still harshly penalize the use of marijuana in Georgia.

            In Georgia, you can still be arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession. Unfortunately, in most jurisdictions, if a police officer locates marijuana, you will be taken into custody. An arrest and fingerprints during the booking process is what triggers criminal history reporting. Any time you are fingerprinted, the Sheriff’s Office then forwards your charges to the Georgia Crime Information Center, which is responsible for maintaining criminal records in Georgia. 

Even if you are arrested for marijuana possession, there are options to keep the arrest off your record. In Georgia, any time a case is dismissed through the criminal process, whether it is for a diversion or pretrial intervention program, or because the marijuana was unlawfully seized, or for any other reason, the entire arrest will be restricted off your record (formerly known as expungement process). A dismissal is a necessity if your goal is to keep the marijuana arrest off your record.

            Diversion programs are typically offered to youthful or first time offenders and typically require some community service or classes. Once these items are completed, the case gets completely dismissed and is erased off the criminal history. First offender pleas http://www.peachstatelawyer.com/georgias-retroactive-first-offender-law-georgia-criminal-defense-lawyer/ and conditional discharge pleas are also available in this case. Jury trials and bench trials are always an option in marijuana cases, just as they are in all criminal cases.

            Another way that a marijuana possession charge in Georgia will not result in a criminal history is if the officer released you on a ticket or citation. If there was a ticket, then there were no fingerprints. Here, it is imperative that during the court process, they do not require fingerprints as part of any type of plea, or else it will in fact still go on your criminal history.

            In order for the State to prove you committed the crime of marijuana possession, they must also prove that the investigation was lawful. Our Constitution protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures. It is imperative that all vehicle stops, searches, and search warrants be closely scrutinized to ensure that your Constitutional rights were protected during the investigation. If there was an illegal search, the marijuana would be thrown out of evidence, and the case dismissed. This would ensure a clean criminal history.

            How long does marijuana possession stay on my record?

            Criminal histories in Georgia are forever. There is no aging off when it comes to crimes entered onto your GCIC. This is why it is imperative that the case be thoroughly investigated and defended in order to safeguard the person’s future and clean record.  There are options. If you or a loved one has been charged with marijuana possession in Georgia, the lawyers of W. Scott Smith are available 24/7 for a FREE CONSULTATION at 404-581-0999.

Georgia DUI: The Art of Plea Bargaining

A successful criminal defense attorney is one who explores and exhausts every possible avenue of defense to the benefit of their clients. If the best course of action is taking the case to trial, the successful attorney will be prepared to try the case. However, statistical evidence shows an overwhelming majority (90%-95%) of all criminal cases in the United States are resolved through a plea bargain.[1] The primary reason for defense counsel to negotiate a plea bargain is to obtain a better resolution for your client than that which may be obtained at trial. 

Clearly, plea bargaining, is a major facet of our criminal justice system. Therefore it is important to understand not only the practical aspects of plea bargaining a DUI case, but also the law that guides those practices. If plea bargaining is the best resolution of a defendant’s DUI case and plea bargaining should occur, this article serves as a guide to the plea bargaining process.  

A Plea Agreement is a Contract

It must be remembered that a plea agreement is a contract under Georgia law, which binds both prosecutor and defendant.[2] In addition, a defendant surrenders valuable constitutional rights when entering a guilty plea under a plea bargain.[3] Further, it must be known that a plea agreement may be approved or denied by the judge.

Generally, no binding contract exists and either party may withdraw their bid until each party has assented or agreed to all the terms of a proposed agreement. This remains true even when the offer states it will remain open for a specific time.[4] Remembering these plea agreements as contacts is vital to the plea bargaining process.

Pre-Trial Conferences

Typically, negotiations regarding a plea occur during a “pre-trial conference.” This process is also known as, “pre-trying” a case. These pre-trial conferences can occur anywhere from before arraignment and up to (and perhaps even during) trial. During these conferences defense counsel and the prosecutor discuss the evidence in the case, viability of defenses, and possible alternative resolutions to the case. As a practical matter, a judge will not schedule a formal pre-trial conference in a misdemeanor DUI case. To the extent a judge does become involved in a pre-trial conference, U.R.S.C. 7.3 governs the process.

Reasons to Negotiate

Although it seems unfair given a defendant’s constitutional right to a trial, most judges will impose a harsher sentence if a defendant opts for a jury trial and loses than if a defendant pleads guilty. The Uniform Court Rules allow for the judge to engage in this type of decision making. Rule 33.6 of the Uniform Rules provides:

  1. It is proper for the judge to grant charge and sentence leniency to defendants who enter pleas of guilty or nolo contendere when the interests of the public in the effective administration of criminal justice are thereby served. Among the considerations which are appropriate in determining this question are:
  2. that the defendant by entering a plea has aided in ensuring the prompt and certain application of correctional measures;
  3. that the defendant has acknowledged guilt and shown a willingness to assume responsibility for conduct;
  4. that the leniency will make possible alternative correctional measures which are better adapted to achieving rehabilitative, protective, deterrent or other purposes of correctional treatment, or will prevent undue harm to the defendant from the form of conviction;
  5. that the defendant has made public trial unnecessary when there are good reasons for not having the case dealt with in a public trial;
  6. that the defendant has given or offered cooperation when such cooperation has resulted or may result in the successful prosecution of other offenders engaged in equally serious or more serious criminal conduct;
  7. that the defendant by entering a plea has aided in avoiding delay (including delay due to crowded dockets) in the disposition of other cases and thereby has increased the probability of prompt and certain application of correctional
  8. The judge should not impose upon a defendant any sentence in excess of that which would be justified by any of the rehabilitative, protective, deterrent or other purposes of the criminal law merely because the defendant has chosen to require the prosecution to prove the defendant’s guilt at trial rather than to enter a plea of guilty or nolo contendere.

Additional reasons to plea bargain include: avoiding a habitual violator status, to save a client’s driver’s license from administrative suspension, and if a DUI defendant is under 21 years of age.

What to Do Prior to a Plea

If a plea is inevitable, defense counsel should have client consider pursuing one or more of the following prior to entering a plea:

  1. Risk Reduction Program (Defensive Driving Class Offered Through DDS)
  2. Community Service
  3. Alcohol and Drug Evaluation
  4. Victim Impact Panel

The Plea Itself

A negotiated plea is where both the defense and prosecution reach an agreement as to the crimes to be admitted to by the defendant and the punishment the defendant is to be subjected to as a result of committing those crimes.  Not only is defense counsel prohibited from accepting a plea offer without authority from client, but defense counsel is also obligated to communicate every negotiated offer to client before rejecting it on client’s behalf.

If a judge refuses to honor the negotiated plea, the defendant may withdraw their plea. All plea bargains are subject to the court’s approval and can never act as more than recommendations to the court. If a judge does reject the plea, the court must inform the defendant: (1)The court is not bound by the plea agreement, (2) the court intends to reject the plea agreement, (3) the sentence or disposition may be less favorable to the defendant than the plea agreement, and (4) the defendant may then withdraw his guilty plea as a matter of right.

A defendant also has the option of entering a non-negotiated plea. This may be a useful tool if defendant wishes to enter a plea and avoid trial but does not agree with the State’s recommended sentence. In a non-negotiated plea, however, the right to withdraw a plea is not absolute and is a matter within the judge’s discretion.

If you or someone you know has been arrested for driving under the influence, contact the law firm of W. Scott Smith at 404.581.0999 today for a free case evaluation. You’ll find a local Atlanta DUI attorney ready to aggressively fight on your behalf. You can also find out more detailed information about Atlanta laws here.


Footnotes

[1] https://www.bja.gov/Publications/PleaBargainingResearchSummary.pdf

[2] Also referred to as a, “negotiated plea.”

[3] These include rights guaranteed under the Fifth and Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution

[4] Usually this is because there is no “consideration” to keep the offer open.

Georgia’s First Offender Act

by Casey Cleaver

What is it?

Under Georgia Code § 42-8-60, the First Offender Act is a sentencing option which allows a person with no prior felony convictions to dispose of their criminal case without a conviction. The law can be paraphrased as follows:

Where a defendant has not been previously convicted of a felony, the court may, upon a verdict or plea of guilty or nolo contendere, and before adjudication of guilt, without entering a judgment of guilty and with the consent of the defendant, defer future proceedings and place the defendant on probation or sentence the defendant to a term of confinement.

O.C.G.A. § 42-8-60(a). Essentially, this means that if a guilty verdict or plea of guilty or nolo contendere is entered against a first-time offender, the State will delay entering a judgment and place the first-time offender on probation or in confinement (or a hybrid of both). The First Offender Act is not a substitute for punishment, but rather an alternative to a conviction.

Although the first-time offender is “sentenced” to probation or confinement, if the person successfully completes their sentence (along with any accompanying terms, fines, and/or programs) then the case is discharged by the court without a conviction and disappears from their criminal history for most employment purposes.

However, if a person fails to complete all the applicable terms of their sentence or commits a new crime, the judge can revoke that person’s First Offender status, and they will be automatically convicted because of the previously entered guilty verdict or plea.  Additionally, the judge could re-sentence you.[1]

Retroactive Application

Initially, a first-time offender could only receive First Offender treatment at the time of sentencing. This limitation ignored a large population of individuals who were eligible for First Offender treatment in the past, but, for various reasons, were not sentenced under the Act; the Act also did not originally include those who were not represented by an attorney and who were not informed of the First Offender sentencing option by the court at their sentencing.

In 2015, the Georgia legislature passed reform allowing for the retroactive application of First Offender sentencing. The law was further clarified in 2017 to make the retroactive provisions applicable to any case sentenced on or after March 18, 1968. The law governing retroactive application of the First Offender Act can be paraphrased as follows:

An individual who qualified for sentencing pursuant to this article but who was not informed of his or her eligibility for first offender treatment or an individual who was sentenced between March 18, 1968, and October 31, 1982, to a period of incarceration not exceeding one year but who would otherwise have qualified for sentencing pursuant to this article may, with the consent of the prosecuting attorney, petition the court in which he or she was convicted for exoneration of guilt and discharge pursuant to this article.

O.C.G.A. § 42-8-66(a) (emphasis added). The process for retroactively applying First Offender status is relatively simple and can be broken down into three steps. The first step is to determine whether the individual is eligible to receive First Offender status retroactively. To be eligible, the person must have been able to receive First Offender treatment at the time he was originally sentenced. There are some offenses under Georgia that disqualify First Offender treatment (such as certain violent felony offenses and sex offenses listed in O.C.G.A. § 17-10-6.1). Most offenses, however, qualify for First Offender treatment so long as the person does not have a prior felony conviction and has not previously been sentenced under the First Offender Act.

If the individual was sentenced between March 18, 1968, and October 31, 1982, to a period of incarceration not exceeding one year then the individual is not required to have been unaware they qualified before they were sentenced. Conversely, to obtain retroactive First Offender treatment for sentences imposed after October, 31 1982, the person must have been unaware that he qualified before he was sentenced. For instance, if an individual requested First Offender at the time of sentencing but was denied First Offender treatment by the judge, he would most likely not be eligible to receive First Offender treatment retroactively.

The second step in the process is to file a petition in the court where the person was convicted. A petition will request that the court hold an evidentiary hearing to determine whether First Offender treatment should be retroactively granted. In order to file a petition, the prosecuting attorney that handled the original case must consent to the filing of the petition.

Lastly, the court will hold a hearing to determine whether to grant the petition. At the hearing, the judge will consider evidence introduced by the petitioner, evidence introduced by the prosecutor, and other relevant evidence. After all the evidence has been presented:

[t]he court may issue an order retroactively granting first offender treatment and discharge the defendant pursuant to this article if the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence[2] that the defendant was eligible for sentencing under the terms of this article at the time he or she was originally sentenced or that he or she qualifies for sentencing under paragraph (2) of subsection (a) of this Code section and the ends of justice and the welfare of society are served by granting such petition.

O.C.G.A. § 42-8-66(d) (emphasis added). Typically, petitioners have character witnesses testify at the hearing to demonstrate to the judge the petitioner is an upstanding member of society. The judge also considers whether the individual has been arrested or convicted of any offenses since the time of their first conviction. Subsequent arrests or convictions are disfavored by the judge and are likely to decrease the probability the petition will be granted.

If the petition is granted, “[t]he court shall send a copy of any order issued pursuant to this Code section to the petitioner, the prosecuting attorney, the Georgia Crime Information Center, and the Department of Driver Services. The Georgia Crime Information Center and the Department of Driver Services shall modify their records accordingly.” Once granted, this procedure allows for the prior conviction to be retroactively discharged without an adjudication of guilt and sealed from a person’s criminal history for most employment purposes.[3]

Every case is different. If you or someone you know may benefit from this type of sentencing modification, contact our office today. We have extensive experience in this process and have successfully handled cases of this nature. We will be able to assist you in investigating your eligibility, navigating the complicated legal process, and fighting for the Georgia First Offender Act to be retroactively applied to your conviction.

 

[1] For example, if you were sentenced to serve three years on probation under the First Offender Act, and you successfully completed two years and 364 days of probation but committed a new crime on the last day of your probation, the judge could re-sentence you to three years probation.

[2] Preponderance of the evidence simply means, ‘more likely than not.’ (Mathematically similar to 51%)

[3] Keep in mind lawyers, law enforcement, judges, police, and certain third party vendors and employers will be able to see the charge. Furthermore, although the law clearly prohibits employers from using a discharge under the First Offenders Act to disqualify a person for employment (under O.C.G.A. § 42-8-63.1), Georgia is an employment-at-will state, so employers may choose not to hire or appoint any person at any time for any reason, or no reason at all, subject, of course, to constitutional requirements.  O.C.G.A. § 42-8-63.

First Offender Sentencing in Georgia

First offender treatment is available in Georgia for anyone who has not been previously convicted of a felony and is not charged with a serious violent felony. Serious violent felonies are murder, felony murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, and aggravated sexual battery. Anyone charged with one of those offenses is automatically ineligible for first offender unless the charge is reduced to a lesser offense.

If a defendant receives first offender treatment, it can be both a blessing and a curse. If there are no issues during the period of probation, then no official conviction will ever be reported and the record itself will seal from public view. However, if the defendant commits a new offense while on probation or has any issues at all, then the judge has discretion to revoke the first offender status and re-sentence the defendant up the maximum sentence allowed by law.

While serving the sentence which will undoubtedly involve a period of probation, the defendant is not technically convicted of a crime but still cannot possess a firearm. After successful completion, all gun rights are restored.

Finally, first offender status can be granted retroactively if the defendant was eligible for first offender treatment at the time of the original plea but was not informed of his or her eligibility. Still, there is discretion, and the judge must find by a preponderance of the evidence that the ends of justice and the welfare of society are served by granting retroactive first offender status.

If you are charged with a crime in Georgia, then you should always consult with an attorney as to whether you are a candidate for first offender treatment. If you have already pled guilty, then you should still reach out to discuss whether you can receive retroactive first offender treatment. Give us a call today at 404-581-0999.