Five-Year Limitations Period on Withheld Sentences

It is not uncommon for a criminal defendant to enter a plea to a charge or charges and then have his sentencing set off to a later date. This is done for a myriad of reasons, including but not limited to, mental health evaluations, gathering of mitigations, preparing for a sentencing hearing, or to enable a defendant to provide substantial assistance to law enforcement. However, it cannot be put off forever.

Fla. Stat. 775.14 provides: Any person receiving a withheld sentence upon conviction for a criminal offense, and such withheld sentence has not been altered for a period of 5 years, shall not thereafter be sentenced for the conviction of the same crime for which sentence was originally withheld.

Essentially, if sentenced is not pronounced within five years of acceptance of the plea and adjudication by the court, the defendant will be discharged and no further sentence can be imposed. However, of course, there are exceptions.

The Court in Sainz v. State, 811 So.2d 683 (Fla. 2d DCA 2002) held that where a defendant has an agreed-upon sentence, pursuant to a plea bargain, but the court has not imposed that sentence yet, that is not a “withheld sentence” pursuant to Fla. Stat. 775.14. Admittedly, this is a little bit of legal gymnastics but the Court desperately wanted to avoid Sainz avoiding his 30-year sentence on attempted murder charges.

Please review the case for the complete set of facts of Sainz, but, essentially, he has held up in New Jersey on murder charges as well after entering his plea to the Florida crimes. He was in New Jersey longer than 5 years and argued that, because of that, Florida could not impose the 30-year sentence to which he agreed.

The Court reasoned, “Thus, section 775.14 is aimed at the situation in which the trial court has withheld sentence, and has not actually made a decision regarding what the defendant’s sentence will be. In the present case, there is no sentencing decision to be made, because the sentence has already been agreed upon. There does not appear to be any reported decision which has applied section 775.14 to a plea bargain in which there was an agreed sentence. In this case, the formal pronouncement of sentence is a mere ministerial act. The fact that there is an agreement for a thirty- year sentence takes this case out of section 775.14.” Sainz at 688.

Additionally, if a defendant absconds and tries to simply stay out of court for 5 years, that won’t work either. State v. Gazda, 257 So.2d 242 (Fla. 1971) held that the 5-year limitation tolls when a defendant absents himself from the court’s jurisdiction.