You got probation and can breathe a huge sigh of relief now that you know you
aren’t going to jail. But don’t forget, you aren’t free yet. Probation comes with
conditions that you must meet. If you violate a condition, your probation can be
revoked and you can be sentenced to time behind bars.
Probation conditions vary greatly. If your offense was minor and you had no priors,
you may have received unsupervised probation. The terms are generally pay the
fine and do not violate the law. On the opposite end of the spectrum, intensive
probation can require an ankle bracelet, reporting to a probation officer weekly,
drug tests, and restrictions on the hours you can be out of your home. Probation
is preferable to incarceration, but to be successful, you need to understand what
is required of you and you need to do it.
Failure to pay fines and restitution, positive drug tests, and additional arrests are
the downfall of many people on probation. Don’t let these mistakes land you in
jail. Here are 10 tips to help you avoid violations.
#1. BE AWARE OF THE PROSECUTOR’S HIDDEN AGENDA AND DON’T FALL
VICTIM TO IT.
Often, the state finds it easier to convict a person on a probation violation than the
original charge. Therefore, the district attorney may agree to a reduced sentence
that includes probation rather than going to trial. For example, a defendant (let’s
call him Lou) is charged with felony possession of cocaine. He has a prior history
and could receive active time. However, the cocaine was not in his immediate
possession but was within his reach. He might be convicted after a trial or he
might get off if the jury decides the drugs were not in his possession, and he had
no intent to control them. Lou’s attorney and the district attorney work out a deal
where he pleads to reduced charges and receives probation and no active time.
If Lou violates the terms of his probation by using cocaine and has a positive drug
test, the case for the district attorney just got easier. All the district attorney has
to do to send Lou to jail is prove that proper protocol was used to conduct the
drug screen and a positive test for cocaine occurred. This is much easier than
proving that Lou had the intent to control the cocaine in the original case. Here
is the secret; a smart district attorney knows she may get a second shot at you on
probation and will have a much easier case to prove.
#2. KEEP YOUR APPOINTMENTS WITH YOUR PROBATION OFFICER AND
CULTIVATE A GOOD RELATIONSHIP WITH HIM OR HER.
No excuses, keep your appointments. You do not want your probation officer to
come to your home or place of work looking for you. First, missing appointments
is typically a violation of your probation. In addition, if a probation officer comes
looking for you there is a better chance he or she will find additional violations.
For example, probationer Joe is at work and cannot get a ride to the probation
office. Joe fails to call his probation officer because he just does not want to go
through the hassle. Joe goes home, and Bob comes over to chat with Joe. Bob
lights up a joint at Joe’s home. You know how this ends; Joe’s probation officer
chooses this time to visit Joe’s home because he missed an office visit.
Do your best to make a good impression on your probation officer. He or she has a
lot of power. Your probation officer may be willing to overlook a minor violation if he
or she believes you are sincerely trying to follow the rules and turn your life around.
Finally, make sure your probation officer always has your current contact
information. If you move, be sure to let him or her know.
#3. KEEP ALL PAPERWORK HAVING TO DO WITH YOUR PROBATION.
Get yourself an expandable file folder and toss every piece of paper, certificate,
and receipt that has anything to do with your probation into it. You want to have
proof that you have paid your fines and restitution and attended all programs,
classes, and meetings with your probation officer that your probation requires.
#4. KEEP GOOD RECORDS OF YOUR JOB SEARCH AND EXPENSES,
ESPECIALLY IF MONEY IS AN ISSUE.
Money is an issue for most probationers. The court typically imposes fines, fees,
and restitution on people who receive probation. You need to get a job. With a
criminal record, that may be easier said than done. Without a job, you cannot pay
the money ordered by the court. Even if you find a job, you may not have enough
money to pay court-ordered fines and living expenses.
Inability to pay court-ordered costs, fees, and restitution can be a defense to a
probation violation. Typically, a court must find that a probation violation was willful
before probation is revoked. Therefore, the court may continue your probation if
you can prove you made a good faith effort to pay.
Look for a job and keep a detailed record of when and where you searched. For
example: “On Monday, Dec. 21, I sent applications to companies A, B, and C.”
Even better: “On Monday, Dec, 21, I went to company A located on Main Street
and applied for a job as a welder. I spoke to Mr. Jones, who is the personnel
director for Company A, and his telephone number is 123-4567.”
Your probation officer may provide you with the forms to be completed that
indicate where you have looked for a job. Do not overlook these seemingly
If your probation officer does cite you for failure to pay a fine, the form could be
the critical piece of evidence at your probation hearing. Sure, you can say you
went to Joe’s Garage or Ben’s Car Works at your hearing, but judges like to see
something tangible, something they can put their hands on. Your attorney can
approach the judge with the list to show your good faith effort.
Similarly, keep a record of your expenses. Rent, power bills, medical expenses,
food, and other necessities can be a defense for failure to pay. In addition, keep
the bills, which can be used as evidence. A word of warning, be sure the item is an
actual necessity. For example, electricity is a necessity, cable or satellite television
is not a necessity. Your attorney can assist you with what records or expenses
need to be submitted to the court.
#5. CONSIDER PARTICIPATING IN AN ALCOHOL OR DRUG PROGRAM, EVEN
IF NOT REQUIRED BY THE TERMS OF YOUR PROBATION.
Alcohol and drugs abuse is often a sensitive area for people on probation. Many
who are caught up in the criminal justice system have substance abuse issues and
have not admitted the problem.
Frequently drug screens are a requirement of probation. The court may not require
you to participate in a drug or alcohol rehab program, although it requires you
to prove you are alcohol or drug free with periodic screenings.
Regardless of whether the court requires participation in a drug -alcohol support
program such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, give serious
consideration to such a program for two reasons. If you are cited for a probation
violation, your good faith participation in a drug/alcohol program may improve
your standing with the court. And, more importantly, if you do have a drug or
alcohol problem, the program may help you overcome it and change your life
dramatically for the better.
#6. FOLLOW NO CONTACT ORDERS.
No contact orders are a frequent probation restriction, especially if the crime is
a domestic assault or involved a spouse or significant other. If the order says to
stay away from your spouse, child or fiancé, stay away.
You may feel remorseful and want to make amends and repair the relationship.
To make matters more complicated, your partner may be open to your advances
and may agree to meet you and resume the relationship.
All too often, the result of a violation is the problems that created the original
charge reemerge, and a second conflict occurs. Or perhaps, no conflict occurs
but your partner just wants you gone. The police are called, and you face two
charges, a probation violation and new assault charges.
The lesson is clear. Until the no contact order is lifted or expires, obey it.
#7. CHOOSE YOUR FRIENDS CAREFULLY.
If you are on supervised probation, major lifestyle changes may be required.
For example, prior to probation, you could choose with whom you associated.
However, probation conditions may forbid you from associating with people who
have felony convictions. Probation may also put other restrictions on people with
whom you may associate.
If the convicted felon is an immediate family member or someone at your job, an exception
typically applies. Tell your attorney and probation officer and get their guidance.
In addition to the requirements of probation, you need to exercise independent
judgment too. Do not associate with people who engage in behavior that will put
you at risk. For example, assume your friend Bob typically has a little marijuana
with him but has no criminal record. However, on this particular day, you are riding
with Bob and he is speeding, not much, just doing 67 in a 55 M.P.H. zone, but he
is stopped by a state trooper. Unfortunately, Bob has smoked in the car and the
police officer smells the marijuana. The police officer searches the car and finds
a small bag of marijuana lying on the console, right beside where you are sitting.
If you are charged with possession, you may win the case, but why take the risk?
#8. EXERCISE CAUTION WHEN DRIVING.
Avoid traffic stops that could escalate into something more. Drive carefully, obey
traffic laws, and make sure your vehicle has no equipment violations that would
attract police attention. Keep your license, registration, and insurance current and
on your person or in your vehicle. Pay outstanding traffic tickets.
Don’t loan your car to anyone or at least to anyone who poses a risk of getting
stopped. Similarly don’t ride with anyone unless you are confident the person is
not involved in any illegal activity that could get you into trouble.
#9. KNOW AND FOLLOW ANY GUN POSSESSION RESTRICTIONS.
You may not be allowed to possess a gun due to probation restrictions or a
felony conviction. The restriction may extend beyond actual ownership of a gun
or having the gun in your hands. The prohibition can include a gun that is in your
home or that you have access to. Even if the gun is owned by someone else in
your household, you could possibly be charged with violating probation.
Raise this issue immediately with your attorney and probation officer. If you wait
and the probation officer finds a gun in your home during a home inspection,
you will have major problems. The rules and laws vary from state to state and
possibly someone in your household can have a gun, but make sure you get this
right from the beginning or you could have an additional charge of possession
of a firearm by a felon and a probation violation.
#10. IF YOU ARE REQUIRED TO REGISTER AS A SEX OFFENDER, BE SURE TO REGISTER.
People convicted of sexual offenses typically have to register their address.
Yes, registering is embarrassing. Registering makes it difficult to rent a house or
apartment and makes it hard to find a job, and you may not really pose a risk to the
community. However, all the above excuses are irrelevant. One of the last things
a judge or district attorney wants to be accused of is letting a sexual offender off
the hook who then harms another person. So, if you are cited by your probation
officer for failing to register, your attorney will have a tough time convincing the
judge to continue your probation.
Another word of warning, the requirement to register often extends beyond the
period of probation.
• To ensure successful completion of your probation, make sure you know,
understand, and follow the restrictions placed on you. Your best resources
are your attorney and probation officer.
• Know what your obligations are when you receive probation. Do not guess
and do not wait; find out the day you are placed on probation.
• Save all probation-related paperwork.
• Attend all required meetings with your probation officer.
• If money is a problem, maintain financial records and a history of job searches.
• Get help with any alcohol or drug problems.
• Do not associate with people who break the law or engage in questionable behavior.
• Follow traffic laws and avoid attracting police attention.
• Obey no contact orders.
• Know and follow gun possession restrictions, which may mean you cannot
live in a household with a gun regardless of who owns the gun.
• If you are required to register as a sexual offender, do it.