What Do “Suspended Sentence” and “Probation” Really Mean?

People charged with DUIs, and common misdemeanors often have great difficulty understanding what the court is saying when they are being sentenced to a fine or informal probation in a criminal case. Here, we try to simplify it for you in plain English:

When a person (defendant) is sentenced on a misdemeanor criminal case, the court often offers the defendant “probation” instead of a straight jail sentence.

Generally, this means the court imposes a jail sentence, but then “suspends” the jail sentence. The court then imposes “probation” “terms” in place of the suspended jail sentence.

If you complete the terms of your probation, and stay out of trouble throughout the probation period, the jail sentence remains “suspended”, or paused. It is never carried out. Once the probation term is over, the suspended sentence disappears. Then, at some point after probation is completed, the case may qualify for “expungement” or removal from your criminal record.

However, everything changes if any of the probation terms are violated.

When a person fails to complete the terms of probation, such as not finishing a court ordered program, or fails to pay a fine on time, the court generally does 2 things:

  1. issues an arrest warrant, and
  2. revokes probation.

If probation is revoked, the “suspended” jail sentence then becomes the real sentence, unless someone (like a criminal defense attorney) can talk the judge into reinstating probation somehow.

A probation violation can arise from something as simple as failing to keep the court updated of a current address. Because of this, if you are on probation, it is extremely important to know and understand all of the terms of your probation.

What is a “suspended fine”?

Sometimes a criminal court judge will sentence a person charged with a traffic or criminal offense to a fine, but will then “suspend” the fine, or a portion of it. In general, this means that if you comply with the court’s orders (usually regarding traffic school, etc.), you will not have to pay the “suspended” fine. However, if you fail to comply the “suspended fine” can become collectible.

Although a “dismissed” fine and a “suspended fine” are the same in the fact that a person does not have to pay either, a dismissed fine is much better, because it is gone forever and cannot become collectible if there is a screw up.

Questions? Leave a comment. We try to respond to them all.

About Attorney Christopher Dort

Public Interest Attorney. CA State Bar #196832. Licensed to practice law in California 1998, and then the US Federal District Court in 2000. Civil Litigation Trial Attorney (Insurance Defense Firms) 2000-2003. Private practice 2003 - present. First Solo Criminal Jury Trial 1998 (Santa Cruz County). First Civil Jury Trial 2002 (Orange County). Santa Cruz County Public Defenders Office 1996-1999 (law clerk). BA in Politics from UC Santa Cruz, 1995. JD, University of California, Hastings, 1998.
This entry was posted in DUI Information, Going to Court, probation, Probation Violations, Traffic Court Fines and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to What Do “Suspended Sentence” and “Probation” Really Mean?

  1. tweety says:

    if you have traffic tickets that are like 10 years old and i paid them today what dose it mean if it say probation case ipaid 5 and on the computer 3 say paid and 2 say probation case what dose this mean?

  2. amanda says:

    My friend has a 6 month suspended sentence and picked up new charges but got bailed out for the new charges and goes to court in a few days for the arraignment of the new charges will they immediately arrest him for violating his probation that day or will the wait to have a violation hearing???

    • Amanda,

      Your question makes no sense, and is unintelligible.

      But I can make a good faith effort and tell you that a probation violation hearing usually only comes after a person has been charged and arraigned on a probation violation (which means after arrest. the second arrest.).

      6mos suspended sentence usually means if you screw up – you get the six months.

      In probation violation cases, the burden of proof is much lower than regular criminal charges. Because of this, it is very rare for a defendant to win a probation violation hearing. But some people truly are innocent.

      Instant Complete Warrant Search
  3. Robin says:

    I was arrested for larceny by employer. Went to court got dropped to misdemeanor 2 yrs suspended sentence – probation for 2 yrs. what I wanna know is…. When I apply for a job and they do criminal background ck will it show felony or misdemeanor. Now? And in future after prob completed?? I’m in north carolina

  4. Danielle says:


    The details of the situation I face are as follows:
    State: AZ City: Mesa
    Traffic ticket: Camera speeding, which I was 12Mph over.
    Totally forgot abot the ticket, was stopped by officer while I was enroute to work. Foumdout my license was suspended, the oficer advised me to get the fine paid, ans reinstate my license. Which I did thst afternoon. I do have to go to court on 10/4 for driving under suspended license, will I need an attorney?
    I have utterly no criminal history, just work 2 jobs which is why I forgot about the ticket. Do they throw people in the pokey for this?

  5. ashley says:

    In march of 2012 I was convicted of obtaining money under false pretense even though it wasn’t me it was my ex bf. But he was no where to.be found and the ins and car was in my name I.got fined. One yr suspended. 3 yrs probation.habhave paid all my fees ans fines, back in July I had drugs planted in my purse and was arranged to be pulled over and there it was. I am not a user never had been. Yea made dumb choices in life. But not at all on drugs. They took the drugs and let me go.a week later my ex husband takes emerg protective order on me scared for my sons safety.sHe’s almost 16. I know this was a setup with how I got pulled over
    They said it was random traffic check but immediately found the drugs
    I consented for them to search me BC I had nothing to hide. Personaly I think its my 16 yr just wants to live with his dad that bad they are trying to do anything to me. This is now a month and I still hadn’t heard about these drugs that were found. What could be going on or could happen

    • Ashley,

      If you did not sign a citation (promise to appear), and did not get arrested – seems like you have nothing to worry about. I dont have anything to tell you. Just go about your life. Get a lock for your purse.

  6. Baxter says:


    I was convicted of a misdemeanor for a DWI in Missouri in 2009 (my 2nd offense). I had two years probation which ended last month. I’ve been offered a job and while filling out forms post offer they asked if I had ever been convicted of a misdemeanor. They also noted that “if the records have been dismissed upon condition of probation by the court then I did not need to disclose it”. The job I’m applying for is in Texas. I don’t remember the probation papers ever saying if I completed probation the misdemeanor would automatically be dismissed. So I’m not exactly sure what to do. This is also a 1099 position and I don’t believe (ie. they have not informed me) that they are going to run a background check but I’m not willing to risk lying and get in more trouble. Although I’m not sure it would be lying since I’m unclear of whether or not the records has been dismissed since my probation was completed. Please help. Any information will be greatly appreciated!

  7. Megan says:

    I’m 17 and today i was caught speeding 52 in a 30 mph speed zone… the officer reduced my speed to 49 on the citation, reducing the fine to $90. I need to go to court though, but the officer told me I may get a reduced fine, probation, and no points on my record.
    I really don’t understand this too much and searching online hasn’t helped much so I was wondering if you could please explain to me the process I will be going through, and the smartest options for me.
    Thank you so much.

  8. Donald says:

    I was convicted of a DUI in CA on Dec. 2008. The judge sentenced me to 5 years probation, 3 years suspended. I have completed all the terms of my probation i.e. community service, treatment program and fine. Am I still on probation as I do not understand what “5 years probation, 3 years suspended” means. I would like to apply to have this expunged. Can I do that now?
    Thank you,

    • DortLaw says:


      Great question!

      Assuming you have the words right, this is what it sounds like to me:

      1. The judge sentenced you to 5 years of probation.
      2. 3 of those years were not actually imposed, because they were “suspended” – which means hanging over your head to extend your probation if you screw up the first 2 years.

      If you completed probation through 2 years without trouble, you can petition the court for an expungement of the conviction. (post conviction dismissal).

      When you petition the court, you might get there and the judge may say “you are still on probation”. If that happens, you make a motion to terminate probation at the same time. It’s a common procedure.

      The reason why they suspend a portion of the probation is so that if you screw up your classes, or miss a fine payment or get caught driving on a suspended drivers license, or get arrested for sexually assaulting a turkey in a bank parking lot at 2 am (wish it were not true) they can impose the suspended probation years and add probation violation penalties to any other trouble you find.

      If you are not sure if you are still on probation, you should contact he court clerk for the courthouse where your case is pending (criminal division) and find out the details. Do not trust what I write here while watching sportscenter as truth in your case.

      • Donald says:

        Thank you very much for the answer. I will go to the Clerk and ask what is needed to have my conviction expunged.

        • DortLaw says:


          Somewhere in this blog I wrote an article on How to Get a Misdemeanor Expunged. And I wrote a self help form for a Motion to Terminate Misdemeanor Probation (CA).

          The actual required form for a petition to expunge (petition for rehabilitation) is available for free at the California Judicial Council Web Site. But it does not include a Motion to Terminate Probation.

          • Donald says:

            Thank you very much for this information. I have 2 questions and one scenario.

            1- Since I was convicted on 12-08 and sentenced to 5 years probation and 3 years suspended. Am I technically still on probation as it is over 3 1/2 years since the conviction. Or am I technically still on probation until 12-13?

            2. Do you recommend I pay a lawyer to do this for me?

            3. Should it get it expunged and I apply for a job the employer will still see it on my DMV (10 years) in CA. Which means I have some explaining to do:-(
            Thank you for your assistance.

          • DortLaw says:


            good questions.

            1) If you were truly on probation for 2 years, it would end automatically. Check with court clerk to be sure.
            2) Paying a competent attorney to do the work for you correctly is probably a good idea. But not required.
            3) Dont confuse the DMV records with the court’s criminal records. An expungement will only affect the court’s record. There is no effective way to get a DUI conviction in CA removed from the DMV records early. I believe the conviction records will remain on DMV records for 10 years. Check with DMV to confirm.

  9. kathy says:

    My son was sentenced for 1 yr and got out in 6 mo plus on parole til sept 23 2012 for a class 4 felony.(1-3 yrs) Well, he just went back to jail the 29th of July for a class 3 felony (2 -5yrs) (retail theft). The state of illinois or parole board stated that they were not going to violate him (which is a good thing I hope). It’s whoever the police talked to when your in violation of parole lol. His court date is the 23 rd of this month. my question is can they still violate him? if they do, does that mean he has to serve the other 6 mo + the new charges of 2 yrs or does he get good time in there as well?

    • DortLaw says:


      Thank you for the comment. I am not qualified to answer this question. But if there is an IL attorney who wants to respond and get free exposure to our 80k unique monthly users, I’d be happy to approve it.

  10. becky says:

    5 years ago i was pulled over for having no license while operating a vehicle in arizona. my sentence was probation length unkown, fines and costs amoutn unkown. the problem is i just found out this is still on my record. is it possible in the state of AZ to get this off my record and is it possible for me to go for my drivers license? this is my first offense.
    i went to defensive drivers school and paid a fine.

  11. AsianGuy says:

    If I am a convicted felon in CA, but on probation, is my sentence suspended or case suspended, will it show up on background checks? Once I complete probation it should be a misdeamenor or expunged therefore what should I put on my applications for employment? Please help me. Thanks it was for PC 459

    • Asian,

      If you were convicted of a felony or misdemeanor as an adult, you have a publicly available criminal record.

      Usually when a CA court puts a person on probation for a crime, it works like this:

      1. Defendant is found guilty (either by pleading guilty or by losing a trial);
      2. Defendant is sentenced, but that sentence is SUSPENDED (paused) pending the completion of:
      3. the terms of probation ordered by the judge.

      At the end of probation, the judge reviews the “Suspended Sentence”, and decides whether or not to “VACATE THE SENTENCE” (end it).

      If you screw up probation in any way, the judge has the power to REVOKE it, and UNsuspend the Suspended sentence.

      Example: in a Typical 1st offense Vehicle Code 23152 case (Driving while intoxicated), the court will impose a Jail sentence of 30 or 60 days, and SUSPEND that jail sentence pending the completion of the typical DUI Probation terms that include Sheriff’s Work program, substance abuse classes, and community service. If the defendant on DUI probation doesnt show up for the work program, the judge will issue a warrant, revoke probation and wait until the Defendant shows up to decide if the SUSPENDED SENTENCE SHOULD BE IMPOSED.

      For many felony convictions in CA, if the Defendant completes probation correctly, without violations, the Felony conviction can be reduced after probation to a misdemeanor in the court’s records. Once that happens, you can petition the court to EXPUNGE the misdemeanor.

      It is easiest if you hire an attorney to do it for you.

      Got it? RELATED ARTICLE: How to End Probation Early : How to Expunge a Conviction

      Browse Our Attorney Drafted CA Self Help Forms

  12. jma says:

    So, here’s where I am confused. I’m not at all familiar with the Virginia Court System. If you are found guilty of a dui, sentenced to 30 days with a suspended sentenced of 25 days, are you going to jail for 5 days?

  13. Nik says:

    I was just sentenced a fine and 30 days suspended jail time, I paid the fine in full and now just have this suspended jail time to worry about for the next 360 days. I realize that if I am arrested for any reason I will be actually serving the time. My question is…if I get any kind of traffic violations (parking ticket, speeding ticket) or maybe a warning (headlight out, etc.) will I be looking at the possibility of jail time?

    • Nik, Great Question! I get so many crappy questions, your question actually makes me happy.

      Usually when a judge puts you on probation with a suspended sentence, one of the terms of the probation will be this:

      “You must obey all laws and orders of the court, with minor traffic infractions excepted.”

      Traffic infractions are not crimes. They do not include the element of “mens rea” (or a “dirty mind”) that defines a crime. Because of this, traffic infractions are not probation violations.

      But watch out! Driving on a suspended drivers license is a crime, and a probation violation (usually). Driving without insurance may violate probation if it was a DUI case – even an infraction because the judge probably ordered you to “Do not drive at all without valid drivers license and liability insurance.” And, and … . . and this is a big one – if you miss a date on a traffic citation, a failure to appear charge is a real misdemeanor crime (See CA Vehicle Code section 40508(a)) and can cause a revocation of probation. Ouch.

      What a great question. BUt I am going to critique it anyway, to help people ask better questions:

      You did not tell me what you were convicted of, and you did not tell me what court it was in. Ever court is different, probation terms vary a lot depending on the crime.

      But thank you for not telling me where you went to school, where your ex wife lives. How many children you have, or how your grandmother died. Thank you.

  14. Veronica says:

    Several months ago I was convicted for a “Hit and Run w/property damage” and judge determined it as a misdemeanor w/3 yr court probation. I finished paying the court fines & swap program. And recently I was stopped by chp for a dui (I know stupid move). But now my question is what should I expect? Will I go to jail? Should I get an attorney instead of a public defender? What will be the consequence since I’m on “court probation” and this being my 1st and last dui?

    • Veronica, like many people – you left out some of the most important facts – like where is the problem? – I guess it is CA, since you mention the CHP. But it could be Colorado, or even Canadia (Canada). Was the cop wearing red and riding a horse? Anyway, I will try to provide a general answer for you. Every county differs.

      You can expect your probation to be revoked, and to be re-sentenced on the original charge by a judge who is pissed off that you were unable to avoid getting arrested while on probation.

      Then, you can expect a separate probation violation charge from the District Attorney (this does not always happen, but can happen at the discretion of the prosecutor.

      And because you blew probation completely – I can say if you were my client – I would tell you jail time is very likely on the original case. The judge is free to lock you up.

      Then there is the DUI prosecution. And the court knows already that you cannot be trusted with probation, so the standard first offense penalty is probably out the window.

      If you were my client, I’d say jail is likely. You need a good attorney who can work some jedi magic.

      I happen to have a jedi magic book for these cases, but I do not share it.

      If you want to email me with the exact location of the cases, I can give you a quote to have me defend you if you are interested.

      The other problem is I can guess that you did not have a valid drivers license. Maybe you did? But of course, that is a small part of a bigger problem.

      Maybe you are innocent of the DUI and can win a jury trial with a good trial attorney?

      That is what you need. But its not cheap. Money does make a difference in this sort of problem, because you can use it to buy a lot of attorney time and expert witness testimony to help you out.

      Yes, money makes a huge difference in criminal court. I said it. It is true. Ask OJ. OJ 1.0 that is. OJ 2.0 is unavailable.

  15. donald says:

    several months ago i was arrested for shoplifting then when i went to court the judge heard me out and suspended it. will this effect my background check and if it does what will it show, misdemeaner or what i actually did

    • Donald, I cannot tell what you were convicted of from the information you provided. I am not sure what you mean by “suspended”. What was suspended? The jail time? The fine? The probation? Your Drivers License? Your license to practice law?

      You need to look at your paperwork form court and figure out if you were convicted of a misdemeanor, felony or infraction. Infractions are not crimes. Felonies and misdemeanors are crimes.

      If a judge suspended a fine, you still get convicted. And if you are wondering what will show up on a background check, the only thing that matters is what you were convicted of.

      • Spookypaws says:

        A few months ago I was arrested for Retail Fraud, 3rd degree in Michigan and am currently serving probation under MCL 771.1. The judge told me if I complete my probation and everything else ordered successfully (fines paid and community service served) this will be ‘expunged’ from my record. I know that this will result in there being no conviction but what exactly will be expunged? The guilty plea as well as no recording of conviction?

        • Spooky,

          This is actually a great question. But it is one that proves having a good lawyer would make a difference. You need to ask that question to an Attorney who is familiar with your case – and with what happened. You should be able to just call up your attorney and say “can you explain this to me?” I wish it were not true, but money does in fact make a difference in the criminal justice system. If you were paying an attorney by the hour to help you, they would answer your phone call immediately. But if you are relying on a tax payer funded public defender who is under paid, and over worked, then you are out of luck for the most part.

          Unfortunately, I cannot answer that question. My only recommendation is to call your attorney if you have one, and/or read every piece of paperwork the court gave you in detail. Maybe even look up the statutes if you know them. The answer is in there somewhere.

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