Disposition or Sentencing

Strictly speaking several criminal case dispositions never result in a “sentence.”  Examples include a “stay of imposition of sentence,” where sentencing is postponed for years in felony cases, upon certain conditions.  If the conditions are met by the defendant, there never is a felony sentence.  But more loosely speaking, a defendant might receive a disposition of a stay of imposition at a “sentencing hearing” documented in a “sentencing order” signed by a judge.  It would be nice if courts were more careful about language, but if we understand the meaning of these terms, we’ll be alright.

Dispositional or Sentencing Hearing

Whether there was a guilty plea as part of a plea agreement or a guilty verdict after a trial, at the time of either a sentencing hearing will be scheduled.   Before the sentencing, the defendant will provide information, and be interviewed by a Probation Officer who will prepare the judge a Pre-Sentence Investigation Report (“PSI” in Minnesota state court or “PSR” in federal court).  This report will be influential with the judge in sentencing.  It is important that the defendant and defense counsel prepare to present the best information and sentencing arguments prior.

Sentencing Motions

three-crosses-CMPRDSometimes in felony cases the prosecuting attorney or the defense attorney will make sentencing motions.  These could include, for example, motions for upward or downward departures from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines presumptive sentence.  Departure motions can concern either dispositional departures (i.e., stayed sentence rather than executed prison sentence) or durational departures (i.e., fewer months rather than more years).


Where the court order any sort of conditional disposition, the Probation Officer writing the PSI or PSR, the prosecutor, the defense lawyer, the defendant, and the victim if any, will all get to weigh in with recommendations and reasons.  The judge will determine what, if any conditions may be ordered.

Types of Criminal Case Dispositions
  • Dismissal (or acquittal)
  • Continuance for Dismissal without a Plea, with Conditions; aka Pretrial Diversion
  • Stay of Adjudication (guilty-plea offered but not accepted by judge, with conditions)
  • Stay of Imposition of Sentence
  • Stay of Execution of Sentence (after imposition of sentence
  • Executed Sentence (for felonies, accompanied by a Commitment Order to Minnesota Department of Corrections, or United States Bureau of Prisons)
Probation vs. Executed Felony Sentence

Strictly speaking, “Probation” means the defendant was convicted of a crime but either imposition or execution of sentence was stayed, upon various conditions.  If the conditions are all met, at the end of the period of the stay the defendant is discharged from court jurisdiction.  Here again, sometimes the term is misused to mean any conditional disposition where something worse will happen to the defendant if he or she fails to meet all conditions.  This could apply to any of the above list of dispositions other than outright dismissal (or acquittal).

In a case where the defendant was adjudicated guilty of a felony, probation means a prison sentence of a year-and-a-day or longer was stayed (either its imposition or its execution), provided conditions are met over the period of the stay.  These conditions can include between zero to 365 days in the county jail (or workhouse).  In the case of a stay of imposition successfully completed, the conviction is deemed a non-felony for purposes other than civil rights to firearms under Minnesota law.  This small advantage does not exist for Minnesota Stays of Execution of Sentence in Misdemeanor cases.

An “executed sentence” is the opposite of a stayed sentence.  With an executed sentence, there is no probation or court supervision of conditions.  An executed sentence generally means executed jail or prison time.  In the case of felonies, an executed sentence means a Criminal Commitment Order giving legal authority over the person of the defendant to the Minnesota Department of Corrections of U.S. Bureau of Prisons.  After that, DOC (or BOP) can release the defendant from prison on Supervised Release, Parole, transitional programming, half-way houses, etc.

Under Minnesota law, a defendant has the right to demand the Minnesota sentencing court “execute” their sentence.  This is unusual.  Most prefer probation and will put up with onerous conditions of probation to keep out of lock-up.  But some prefer incarceration to probation, and it’s their right to choose jail or prison instead.