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Criminal-Charge Stacking and Double Jeopardy

The legal concept of “double jeopardy” is relatively well understood in our society as the prohibition against prosecution and punishment for the same offense a second time. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that no person shall “be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” “Jeopardy” is a term that refers to the risk of criminal liability in a criminal prosecution. This provision was designed as a check on the considerable power and resources of the State to make repeated attempts at convicting an individual for an alleged offense, thereby subjecting the individual to undue embarrassment, expense and harassment in defending such a multiplicity of claims. Specifically, double jeopardy protects against the prosecution of a defendant for the same offense after an acquittal; a prosecution for the same offense after a conviction; and more than one punishment for the same offense.
A common practice among prosecutors is to charge defendants with as many crimes, for a single incident or transaction, as they can. This practice is commonly known as “charge-stacking.” Police officers and district attorneys have substantial discretion over what crimes to charge a suspect. In some cases, they assert more charges than is fair and reasonable for the circumstances, ostensibly, to strengthen the main case that the prosecutor wishes to pursue. As a result, a defendant is forced to fight against charges that may not necessarily fit the facts of the case. Further, charge-stacking is favorable for the prosecution, because with numerous opportunities for a conviction, the likelihood of securing one or more out of the entire “batch” is significant. In addition, if the defendant is found guilty of more than one crime, the courts can increase jail time for each offense, sometimes resulting in a sentence that is unreasonable and excessive given the actual facts of the case.
In recognition of these substantial risks, states have prohibitions, either by statute or court rule, that limit the number of offenses a person can be convicted of for a single incident. This is commonly known as the “one act, one crime” rule. In summary, these laws and rules provide that a person may not be found guilty or plead guilty to more than one offense when all the offenses for which he is charged arose out of the same “criminal transaction,” or criminal act or acts. However, based on an exception, as explained below, a person can be found guilty of more than one crime involving the same criminal transaction.
Whether or not a person can be found guilty of the more than one crime for the same criminal transaction is based on the elements of each crime. Any time a person is charged with a crime, that crime consists of specific elements that must be proven by the prosecution. If one count of a charge requires the same elements as another count, then the defendant can be found guilty of only one of those counts. However, if a person is charged with a count that has elements not in another count he is charged with, then he might very well be able to convicted and sentenced on both counts. As an example, charges for an alleged offense, involving a conflict between two individuals in which one person screams, gesticulates, and threatens harm to the other, giving rise to a charge of summary harassment and to a charge of disorderly conduct, would potentially violate the Double Jeopardy doctrine, if a conviction results for both. Because the charge of summary harassment has, essentially the same elements as disorderly conduct, but lacks only the requirement that it must have been committed in a public setting, it represents the same offense (known as a “lesser included offense”) and may not be prosecuted in addition to the other related offense.
In summary, there are many complexities and risks involved in the process of criminal charging and prosecution. Hiring a good defense lawyer, however, could help mitigate these risks by negotiating to have some or all of the charges against you dropped immediately.
The attorneys at Tanner Law Offices can assist you or your loved ones in the process of defending against criminal charges and in protecting your rights. Please contact our office at 717-836-0471 to schedule a consultation to discuss your case.