Disposition vs. Sentencing: A Complete Guide

Gayle Sato
May 17, 2023
5 min read

The results of a criminal background check may impact hiring decisions when used as part of a pre-employment background screening. But understanding the results can be a challenge if you aren’t familiar with legal terminology. Understanding the difference between disposition and sentencing allows you to get a clearer picture of a candidate’s criminal history report.

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What does disposition mean?

A disposition is the final resolution or outcome of a criminal case. A defendant in a criminal case may be acquitted (found not guilty), convicted (found guilty), or have their conviction (or judgment) vacated. In some cases, a final disposition may be deferred or suspended while the defendant completes probation, community service, or other treatment.

Disposition on a criminal background check may also show a case to be pending. Broadly speaking, this means the case is still open. Law enforcement may be conducting additional investigations, future hearings may be scheduled, and no final determination has been made in the case.

What does disposition mean in a criminal case?

The disposition of a criminal case is its final outcome: convicted or acquitted, deferred or suspended. For employers considering a candidate’s criminal history, disposition is important since it can indicate whether the candidate was ultimately convicted of a crime.  Dispositions always relate to a specific offense. For example, an individual could be charged with 3 offenses in the same criminal proceeding, and 2 of the charges are dismissed while the other may result in a conviction.

Dispositions shown on a candidate’s criminal record or criminal background report may include the following common terms, shown here with their basic definitions:


A conviction means the defendant has either been found guilty or pleaded guilty. The following terms may also indicate conviction on a candidate’s criminal background check:

  • guilty
  • convicted
  • no contest
  • paid fine
  • nolo contendere

Deferred Adjudication or Diversion

Deferred adjudication or diversion indicates the final disposition in the case has been deferred so the defendant may complete drug or alcohol treatment, probation, community service, or another court requirement. When the requirement is completed, the disposition court may reconsider the case and possibly dismiss it.

Alternate terms for a deferred judgment include:

  • adjudication withheld
  • pre trial diversion
  • prepaid
  • prayer for judgment
  • deferred


An acquittal means the defendant is found not guilty. Although the terms “acquitted” and “not guilty” are often used interchangeably, they do not have the same meaning. An acquittal may occur when a judge or appeals court decides there is not enough evidence to go to trial. Being found “not guilty” is not a determination of innocence, but instead may occur when a criminal defense convinces a judge or jury there was not enough evidence for a conviction.

Charges Dismissed

When charges are dismissed, the district attorney or judge has dropped the case against the defendant. Dismissed charges may be listed using the following terms:

  • dismissed
  • nolle prosequi
  • nolle prosse
  • withdrawn
  • no file/information

No Charges Filed

When no charges were filed, the district attorney decided not to file charges against the person arrested for a crime. Thus, prosecution in the case does not move forward.

Sentence Vacated

Although a guilty plea or verdict was made, a vacated sentence means the district court declined to impose a sentence at the disposition hearing and the guilty verdict or plea was erased as if it had not occurred.


A pending case is still open and subject to further investigation and/or prosecution. Here are a few additional terms that may indicate a case is still pending:

  • failure to appear
  • waive preliminary hearing
  • held to answer
  • unserved

Suspended Sentence

With a suspended sentence, sentencing has been delayed, often pending the completion of probation, community service, or a treatment program.

What is sentencing in law?

One definition of a sentence in law is the consequence that follows a conviction or guilty plea. Examples of sentences include fines, probation, community service, or incarceration. Not every disposition results in sentencing: No sentence is imposed if the defendant is acquitted, charges are dropped, or the conviction is vacated. A criminal background check may show both disposition and sentencing information, including dates of incarceration.

What’s the difference between disposition and sentencing? A disposition determines the commission (or non-commission) of a crime; a sentence is the consequence or punishment imposed. Sentencing may vary based on the seriousness of the crime. Felonies generally result in longer sentences. Sentencing for misdemeanors and infractions is generally one year or less.

Does a disposition show up on a background check?

Dispositions on a criminal background check show up if a search of the candidate’s criminal history returns results. However, employers should note that restrictions may apply when reviewing a candidate’s criminal background.

Employers who conduct criminal background checks through a consumer reporting agency (CRA), like Checkr, must comply with the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The FCRA restricts non-conviction information reported by a CRA to a 7-year lookback period which includes arrests, civil judgments, tax liens, and most credit report information. It excludes bankruptcies, which may be reported for up to 10 years and criminal convictions which may be reported indefinitely. If a candidate’s expected salary is $75,000 or higher or if searches are conducted by the employer themselves, these limitations may not apply.

Additionally, state and local fair hiring and Ban the Box laws may limit the information that is reported or impose additional restrictions when conducting a criminal background check. Currently 9 states limit reporting of felony or misdemeanor convictions to 7 years, unless an exception applies.

In some cases, state or local laws may require employers to review a candidate’s criminal history when hiring for certain jobs, such as childcare workers or law enforcement personnel. These laws may specify a lookback period or may require employers to search a candidate’s full adult record.

Some criminal records may not appear in a criminal history search regardless, including juvenile records and records that have been sealed or expunged.

Get a background check with Checkr

Criminal background checks may be an important part of your pre-employment screening, but the results may not always be easy to understand. Checkr offers multiple screening options for employers of all sizes, with accurate and easy-to-read results.

Because each jurisdiction has their own set of terms used for charges and dispositions, Checkr developed a Charge Classifier so you only encounter plain English on reports you adjudicate. In fact, our adjudication tools help you hire faster by reducing time spent on manual review by 70%. Our built-in workflows also help support fair hiring, while enabling compliance for informed hiring decisions. Get started.

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The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.

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About the author

Gayle writes about business topics, specializing in background checks and screening best practices.

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