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Coleman v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

September 24, 2019

COLEMAN
v.
THE STATE.

          DILLARD, P. J., GOBEIL and HODGES, JJ.

          Dillard, Presiding Judge.

         Anthony Coleman appeals his conviction for making a false statement, arguing that the trial court erred in denying his motion for an order of exoneration and restriction of access to his criminal records under Georgia's First Offender Act because his sentence was ambiguous. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm.

         Following a jury trial, Coleman was convicted of one count of making a false statement, but acquitted of the remaining counts in the indictment. And on May 16, 2016, Coleman was sentenced to five years of probation and a fine of $1, 000. Then, on August 22, 2018, Coleman filed a "Motion to Terminate Probation and Enter An Order of Exoneration and [a] Motion Pursuant to [OCGA] § 42-8-62.1[1] to Restrict Access to the Criminal Records in the Above-Styled Case." In the motion, Coleman alleged that he had completed his required community service, paid $750 of the fine and was prepared to pay the balance, and had been released for active probation supervision. Coleman also claimed that he had no prior criminal record before the sentence imposed in this case, and that he had faithfully performed the statutory requirements necessary for the court to grant his requests. In sum, Coleman contended that his "probation should be terminated and a conditional discharge/first offender should be entered pursuant to [OCGA] § 42-8-60 as 'not guilty[, ]'" and "[a]ccess to the conditional discharge/first[-]offender sentence should be restricted pursuant to [OCGA] § 42-8-62.1 (b) (1)."

         The trial court held a hearing on Coleman's motion, at which the State did not oppose his request to terminate probation. But Coleman's other requests were based on his alleged status as a first offender, [2] and the State disputed that he was sentenced as a first offender. In response, Coleman argued that his sentencing order was ambiguous as to whether he was adjudicated guilty or sentenced as a first offender and that this ambiguity must be resolved in his favor. The State disagreed, contending, inter alia, that the sentencing form was not ambiguous and the court was not authorized to sentence Coleman as a first offender because he was ineligible for such status at the time his sentence was entered. Ultimately, the trial court granted Coleman's request to terminate his probation, but denied his other requests. This appeal follows.

         Coleman's sole argument on appeal is that the trial court erred in denying his motion for an order of exoneration and restriction of access to his criminal records under the First Offender Act because his sentence was ambiguous and should be construed in his favor. We disagree.

         As indicated by the title of the First Offender Act, defendants are not entitled to be sentenced as a first offender more than once.[3] And here, while Coleman alleged in his motion that he had no prior criminal record, at his 2016 sentencing hearing, his trial counsel informed the court, without prompting, that Coleman was ineligible for first-offender status. Specifically, in his closing argument, Coleman's counsel stated: "I don't know how many times [Coleman] got arrested, but he has one prior conviction. Unfortunately[, ] he used his first offender in that, so he's not eligible for first offender. So by this sentence[, ] . . . he would be a convicted felon."[4] Thus, Coleman admitted that the trial court was not authorized to sentence him under the Act because he had been given first-offender status in a prior proceeding. But regardless of whether Coleman qualified for first-offender status, his sentencing form unambiguously shows that he was not sentenced as a first offender.

         Turning to the merits of his argument on appeal, Coleman is correct that sentences for criminal offenses should be "certain, definite, and free from ambiguity; and [when] the contrary is the case, the benefit of the doubt should be given to the accused."[5] And here, Coleman contends that the following language on the sentencing form creates an ambiguity as to whether he was sentenced as a first offender: "The Defendant is adjudged guilty or sentenced under First Offender/Conditional Discharge for the above-stated offense(s) . . . ."[6] But this sentence merely establishes that Coleman was either being adjudged guilty or sentenced as a first offender, not both. Moreover, this statement is entirely consistent with Georgia law because when a defendant is sentenced as a first offender, "there is no adjudication of guilt [and] there is no conviction."[7] Additionally, the sentencing form indicates, in bold print, that the "[d]isposition]" of the charged offense is "Guilty." And while the box on the form indicating the defendant was being sentenced as a repeat offender is not checked, neither was the box indicating the defendant was a first offender. In sum, because a first-offender sentence is not an adjudication of guilt and Coleman's sentencing form indicates that he was being convicted of the charged offense, the form was not ambiguous as to whether Coleman received first-offender status, as it made clear that he did not.[8]

         For all these reasons, we affirm the trial court's denial of Coleman's motion for an order of exoneration and to restrict access to his criminal record. [9]

         Judgment affirmed.

          Gobeil and Hodges, JJ., concur.

---------

Notes:

[1] See OCGA ยง 42-8-62.1 (b) (1) ("At the time of sentencing, or during the term of a sentence that was imposed before July 1, 2016, the defendant may seek to limit public access to his or her first offender ...


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