Diversions in Tennessee: A Second Chance in the Justice System

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

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In the Tennessee legal system, diversions play a pivotal role in providing alternative paths for those facing criminal charges. These programs offer opportunities for individuals to address offenses without the permanent implications of a conviction. This guide will delve into the specifics of Tennessee’s diversion program, elucidating their processes, eligibility criteria, and potential outcomes. We’ll break down each step, helping you grasp the essence of these diversion programs and their role in the broader legal framework.

The Two Types of Diversions in Tennessee

There are two main ways for individuals facing criminal charges in Tennessee to get another chance: through pretrial diversion and judicial diversion. Let’s simplify what each means:

Pretrial Diversion

Before any decision on guilt is made, this option pauses or “suspends” the court’s decision-making process. No judgments are made during this time. Instead, the person facing the charges, known as the defendant, enters into an agreement with the District Attorney. This agreement is formally called the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). This type of agreement does not require any finding of guilt or any admissions by the defendant in open court.

The MOU isn’t just a general agreement; it’s a detailed list of tasks or conditions that the defendant must adhere to. This could include:

  • Community Service: A set number of hours the defendant must complete.
  • Rehabilitation Programs: Sessions or courses, like anger management or substance abuse classes, which the defendant must attend. In alcohol or drug cases it would likely include an alcohol and drug assessment with the requirement to follow any recommendations.
  • Restitution: If the crime involved financial loss, the defendant might need to repay the victim.

Should the defendant successfully fulfill every item on the MOU’s list, they have the option to request the court to expunge, or wipe clean, their charges. It’s as if the charges never existed. Conversely, if the defendant fails to meet the MOU’s conditions or slips up along the way, the legal proceedings pick up from where they left off, potentially leading to a trial.

To be eligible for this option, the defendant typically shouldn’t have any prior convictions. However, even when an individual has prior convictions, prosecutors generally proceed forward with a “pass and dismiss” which is similar to a pretrial diversion. Furthermore, both the District Attorney and the defendant must mutually agree on the terms of the MOU.

Judicial Diversion

With a judicial diversion, the defendant must admit guilt in open court through a guilty plea. Thus, unlike a pretrial diversion or pass and dismiss, a judicial diversion requires a plea of guilty. However, here’s where it veers away from the usual process: instead of immediately deciding on a penalty or sentence, the court sets a kind of “trial period”. During this period, the defendant must adhere to specific rules or conditions set by the court to allow the case to ultimately be dismissed and expunged at the end so long as the conditions are followed. Some examples include:

  • Probation: The defendant may be monitored for a certain period, ensuring they adhere to all rules.
  • Counseling or Therapy: Depending on the offense, they might need to attend specific counseling sessions. In alcohol or drug cases it would likely include an alcohol and drug assessment with the requirement to follow any recommendations.
  • Drug Testing: Regular drug tests could be mandated, especially if the offense was drug-related.

If the defendant navigates this period without any missteps and fulfills all the conditions, the charges are then dismissed. This means they won’t have this conviction on their record. However, any lapse in adhering to the set conditions brings back the original penalties associated with their guilty plea.

It’s important to note that although a judicial diversion requires a guilty plea, it allows for an alternate outcome wherein the sentence is deferred to be dismissed upon the completion of all the requirements of the diversion. A regular guilty plea results in an immediate judgment against you forever (unless it is later eligible for expungement), without the opportunity for charge dismissal or expungement. A judicial diversion is deferred and therefore the charge will ultimately be dismissed if there are no violations.

However, not everyone can opt for judicial diversion. For instance, individuals with prior serious misdemeanors where they served time, or those with past felony convictions, are not eligible for this route.

In essence, a judicial diversion is like a “conditional second chance”–the court acknowledges the guilt but offers an opportunity for the defendant to prove themselves and possibly escape the enduring consequences of a conviction. It’s always wise to consult with an experienced Knoxville, Tennessee lawyer to understand if this option is viable and what it would entail.

Expunging Criminal Charges in Tennessee

Expungement is the legal process of removing or erasing a criminal record from public view. While the conviction or charge might still be accessible by certain government agencies, for most purposes (such as job applications or housing searches) it’s as if the conviction or charge never happened.

When Can You Get an Expungement?

In the context of diversions, expungement comes into play in specific scenarios:

  • Pretrial Diversion: If you complete all the tasks in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and meet all conditions, you can request the court to expunge your charges.
  • Judicial Diversion: Successfully completing the “trial period” without any violations and meeting all set conditions means your charges can be dismissed and subsequently expunged.

It is worth noting that diversions aren’t the only path to expungement. Other scenarios where expungement might be possible include:

It is also crucial to note that not all crimes can be wiped clean. Some serious offenses, even if you qualify for diversion, might remain on your record. For instance, registerable sex offenses can be diverted but not expunged.

Contact Barnes & Fersten For Criminal Defense

If you’re facing with criminal charges in Tennessee, it’s important to be aware of the avenues available to you. Pretrial and judicial diversions stand out as potential lifelines, providing opportunities to address charges in a way that might bypass the lasting stigma of a full-blown conviction. Moreover, with the prospect of expungement, there’s the possibility of wiping the slate clean, effectively erasing the charge from public records.

Navigating these options and their nuances can be challenging. At Barnes & Fersten, we’re deeply familiar with the intricacies of East Tennessee’s legal landscape. Our team is committed to offering clear, comprehensive guidance tailored to your unique situation. If you’re seeking clarity on your options and a way to chart a positive path forward, contact us today for a free consultation.

Attorney At Law, Managing Partner

Brandon D. Fersten is an esteemed Knoxville attorney practicing DUIcriminal defense, and juvenile law. Known for his empathetic approach and commitment to his clients, he brings a record of favorable case outcomes including dismissals and not guilty verdicts at jury trials resulting in Brandon being recognized as one of the “Top 40 Under 40” in Criminal Defense, U.S. News’ Best Lawyers: “Ones to Watch,” and Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars”. Brandon’s professional accolades, combined with his passion for justice, position him as a reliable criminal defense advocate in the East Tennessee legal landscape.