Understanding Georgia’s First Offender Act and Its Retroactive Application

By Casey Cleaver

07/24/2018

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.