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No deferred disposition after finding of guilt

Once the trial court found appellant guilty of welfare fraud, it lacked the inherent authority, under Starrs v. Commonwealth, 287 Va. 1 (2014), or Hernandez v. Commonwealth, 281 Va. 222 (2011), to order a deferred disposition.

Caselaw review

“On appeal, appellant challenges the trial court’s denial of her request to defer disposition in this case, arguing that the court disregarded its inherent authority to do so. … In Hernandez, … our Supreme Court held that ‘[u]ntil the court enters a written order finding the defendant guilty of a crime, the court has the inherent authority to take the matter under advisement or to continue the case for disposition at a later date.’

“The Court further held that a trial court’s statement that the evidence was sufficient to convict does not amount to a ‘judgment of conviction’ or ‘a formal adjudication of guilt.’ …

“In Starrs, … our Supreme Court reaffirmed the holding of Hernandez in the context of a guilty plea, concluding that trial courts ‘retain[] the inherent authority to withhold a finding of guilt’ and ‘to defer the disposition’ even after entering a guilty plea on the record.

“‘Thus, the Supreme Court’s decisions in Hernandez and Starrs identify a narrow aspect of judicial authority prior to the entry of the conviction order that permits a trial court, “in the exercise of its discretion,” to defer the disposition of a criminal trial until a later date.’ Harris v. Commonwealth, 63 Va. App. 525, 533 (2014) (emphasis added).

“Our Supreme Court further addressed the holdings of Starrs and Hernandez in Lewis v. Commonwealth, 295 Va. 454, 466 (2018), in which the Court noted that ‘[t]he defining moment in terms of assessing whether the court has inherent authority to defer disposition … is when it adjudicates that the defendant is guilty of the specific charge, not when it enters a written order.’

“Thus, under Lewis, ‘once a trial court orally pronounces a defendant guilty, it loses the authority to defer disposition, even if it has not yet entered a conviction order.’”


“Appellant argues that the trial court erred in denying her request for a deferred disposition because it retained the inherent authority to do so under Hernandez and Starrs.

“However, her argument fails to recognize that at the time the trial court made its ruling on whether to grant a deferred disposition, it had no authority to do so. At the April 7, 2021 trial, after hearing evidence in the case, the trial court stated that it was ‘going to go ahead and make a finding of guilt today.’

“Under Lewis, this was the ‘defining moment’ at which the court lost the authority to defer disposition. … It is clear that the trial court erred in ruling that it had the ability to enter a deferred disposition at the time it ruled on the issue, as it had already orally and in writing pronounced appellant guilty of violating Code § 63.2-522.

“Although the trial court erred in finding that it could have deferred disposition pursuant to Hernandez and Starrs, it did not take such action. …

“Although for the wrong reasons, [the trial court] ultimately reached the right result in declining to grant appellant a deferred disposition; therefore, we conclude that there is no reversible error in its judgment.”


Twyman v. Commonwealth, Record No. 1228-21-4, Aug. 9, 2022. CAV (Malveaux) From the Circuit Court of Culpepper County (Durrer) Monica J. Chernin for appellant. Justin B. Hill, Jason S. Miyares for appellee. VLW 022-7-308, 7 pp. Unpublished opinion.

VLW 022-7-308

Virginia Lawyers Weekly