19 April 2009

How Long Can a Judge Keep Someone Under Threat of Imprisonment?

As a comment on another post, Tony asks:
Maybe some one can help me understand something as follows. (1) Can a defendant be placed on probation for a term exceeding what the original sentence would have been,i.e. (2) in a class 1 misdemeanor can the defendant be put on probation for three years when the sentence is 12 months with 11 suspended for three years, with "indefinite" local probation? and (3) how long would the [indefinite] probation be, three years or 12 months?
[1]It's an interesting question and the waters are muddied by the fact that there are two separate things which occur under Virginia law, the period of probation and the period of the suspended sentence. As best I can define the two, the period of a suspended sentence is how long an offender can be hauled back into court to receive time "for any cause the court deems sufficient" (§ 19.2-306) and probation is the period of time the offender has someone specifically assigned to be her caretaker. Unfortunately, in both statutes and judicial decisions, there has been a loose usage of these terms. Sometimes they are used in parralell, sometimes they have separate meanings, and sometimes they seem to be used as synonyms. It confuses things.

[2] A defendant can have his sentence suspended for as long as the judge determines to be "a reasonable time, having due regard to the gravity of the offense." Va Code § 19.2-303.1. In other words, if the judge decides an offender's brandishing a firearm misdemeanor needs to have the sentence suspended for a period of 20 years, the judge can so order.

[3] Indefinite probation usually means that probation shall end at the discretion of the probation officer after certain conditions have been met. I couldn't find any limits to the length of probation, but logic would seem to indicate it could go no longer than the period during which the sentence is suspended.

[4] A common practice in Virginia courts is to usually limit most misdemeanors to a single year period of time suspended and in cases that the judge sees as more egregious three years of time suspended. I cannot find any statutory reason for this and suspect it may be ensconced in Virginia law via Smith v. Underwood, 1985, Va. App. No. 0316-85. In this decision a habeas was rejected because it was based upon new claims, but the court also accepted, without any discussion, 3 years time suspended on a misdemeanor.
[5] Furthermore, we find no ambiguity in the June 3, 1982, sentencing order that would support Smith's claim that the misdemeanor sentence suspension could not be revoked. Its terms are clear. Both the felony and misdemeanor sentences were suspended and Smith was placed on probation for a period of three years.
[6] Nevertheless, nothing in the statutes or any cases I've seen seems to limit the length of time a person can have his sentence suspended if the judge is specific about the length.

[7] If the judge is not specific about the length of time for the suspension it defaults to the length of the maximum potential sentence for the crime (ie: 1 year for petit larceny & 20 years for grand larceny). § 19.2-306. However, a judge can extend both probation and suspension. Under § 19.2-306(C), if a judge "finds good cause to believe that the defendant has violated the terms of suspension" the suspension is revoked and the sentence is imposed. However, the judge can resuspend the sentence - leaving him the option of setting a new length of time for the suspension. Under § 19.2-304, the judge can alter probation upon the convening of a hearing; as the statute states no other conditions, it appears that the judge has complete discretion in this.

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