What Constitutes A “Violation of the Law” In a Plea In Abeyance Agreement?

A plea in abeyance or “PIA” is an agreement in a criminal case in which the defendant enters a provisional guilty plea and agrees to perform certain tasks. If the defendant complies with the PIA, the case is dismissed. If the defendant fails to comply, however, the guilty plea is entered as a conviction and the defendant may receive additional punishment.

Because the use of PIAs is discretionary, the nature and frequency of PIAs varies from court to court. However, nearly every PIA includes a term that a defendant may not commit a new violation of the law. The question is what constitutes a “violation of the law” for purposes of a PIA.

The Utah Court of Appeals recently addressed this question in Salt Lake City v. Northern, 2013 UT App 299, in which the Court reaffirmed its holding Layton City v. Stevenson, 2013 UT App 67, that a “violation of the law” in a PIA is not limited to formal conviction but “may be supported by evidence of misconduct other than a conviction.” In other words, a defendant may violate the law—and thereby his PIA—even if he is never convicted of a subsequent crime.

This is precisely what happened to the defendant in Salt Lake City v. Northern. Mr. Northern initially entered a PIA but the agreement was later revoked when he was accused of assault. Although witnesses to the incident disagreed on exactly what happened, both the trial court and appellate court found there was “sufficient evidence” that Mr. Northern violated the law. And while “sufficient evidence” would not support a conviction (the standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt”), it is evidently sufficient to support a violation of a PIA.

The holding in Salt Lake City v. Northern offers a stern warning to defendants that a PIA is a privilege and that a defendant may violate his PIA through conduct never resulting in a conviction—or even a criminal charge. If you are currently a criminal defendant and are being offered a PIA, be certain you understand the terms of the agreement as well as the consequences of violating it. If you have already entered into a PIA and have been accused of any violation of the law, you should consult with an attorney immediately, as that violation could result in a revocation of your PIA.

For additional questions about PIAs or your rights as a criminal defendant, or to speak directly with an experienced criminal defense attorney, please contact Reneer & Associates at (801) 377-3991 or email btwelch[at]reneerlaw.com.

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