When judges sentence sex offenders to probation, they often require the defendants to "actively participate" and "successfully complete" a sex offender treatment program. The law does not specify what "successful completion" requires. It is generally understood that a defendant must cooperate with the treatment program's requirements in order to complete probation. This can create problems where treatment programs impose requirements that defendants were unaware of when they entered a guilty plea.
Last week, the Supreme Court took up this exact issue in a case called Staples v. State. The court revoked a sex offender's probation for failing to comply with the treatment program's requirement that each patient admit responsibility for engaging in sexual misconduct. Staples involved a petitioner who entered a guilty plea to a charge of travelling to meet a minor for sex. During his sentencing, the court did not require Mr. Staples to admit that he actually committed the crime. He was also never told that his treatment program would require him to do so. Mr. Staples never missed a single treatment session. However, the program discharged him when he refused to admit responsibility for engaging in sexually deviant or inappropriate behavior.
Prior to Staples, a trio of Florida appellate court decisions had held that sex offenders in this situation could not have their probation revoked. They held that because only the trial court could impose conditions of probation, the treatment program's "admission of guilt" requirements amounted to an additional condition imposed by an unauthorized person. They also found that a person could not willfully violate a condition if they never had notice of its existence.
The Florida Supreme Court, in a decision authored by Justice Quince, disagreed and overturned these earlier decisions. The Court held that admission of guilt was not a new, additional condition, but an "internal, program-specific, requirement that may or may not cause an offender to violate the 'successful completion' condition of sex offender probation". The Court relied on its prior decision, Lawson v. State, which held that every condition of probation does not need to be spelled out for the defendant as long as the defendant is on reasonable notice as to what type of conduct will result in a violation.
This new rule gives treatment programs a hefty amount of power over patients on probation. It also leaves individuals accused of sex offenses, like Mr. Staples, in a precarious position when their treatment program sandbags them with unanticipated requirements. According to the Court, the proper course of action in such situations is to withdraw their plea.
This solution, understandably, may not sit well with defendants. It could potentially expose them to a trial and lengthy sentence. It also did not sit well with the entire Florida Supreme Court. Justice Pariente dissented, criticizing the court's reasoning and its proposed solution. She reasoned that withdrawing a plea was only proper where the defendant does not understand the potential consequences of pleading guilty. Thus, it would defy logic to withdraw because of consequences that the court never communicated in the first place.
The Supreme Court's new rule, however illogical or unfair it may appear, did not equivocate. If a treatment program requires a person accused of a sex crime to admit guilt, that person should either comply or have an attorney move to withdraw their plea. Simply refusing to admit responsibility is now no longer an option and will result in revocation of probation