Overcharging in a Criminal Case

Overcharging in a criminal case refers to a tactic used by law enforcement in which the police and prosecutor add additional charges against a defendant that they may or may not be able to prove if the case went to trial. Law enforcement does this to put themselves in a better position to plea bargain.

From the prosecutor’s stand-point, overcharging allows them to accuse the defendant of a crime that the prosecutor may not be able to prove in order to induce the defendant to plead guilty to the crime law enforcement believes the defendant did commit.

Two Types of Overcharging in a Criminal Case

There are two types of overcharging in a criminal case.

Horizontal overcharging occurs when law enforcement unreasonably multiplies the number of crimes a defendant committed. In this case, each technically separate offense is charged as a separate crime.

Vertical overcharging occurs when law enforcement charges a defendant with a single offense that is higher than what the circumstances of the case may warrant.

Prosecutors Have Discretion in How to Charge a Defendant

Charging is discretionary, which means that a prosecutor has a range of choices in deciding what charges to bring against a criminal defendant.

For example, suppose someone is stopped and is in possession of marijuana. In the most straightforward sense, this could be a simple case of drug possession.

But if the suspect is rude to the officer, tries to run away, or refuses to identify themselves, the police officer and prosecutor could charge the defendant with the additional crimes of possession of drug paraphernalia, resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer, and/or failure to comply with a lawful request from law enforcement.

Depending on the amount of marijuana in the defendant’s possession the suspect could also face charges of possession of a controlled substance with the intent to deliver.

A person could also face separate charges for each piece of paraphernalia in their possession and, depending on what else was on their person, could also face charges for possession with intent to deliver.

Similarly, if you are rude to the police officer during a traffic stop, hesitate to identify yourself, or refuse to give your license to the police officer, the officer may make a point of checking your vehicle registration, compliance with insurance requirements, and may ticket you for additional minor offenses like minor problems with your vehicle.

Overcharging in a Criminal Case Leads to More Plea Bargains

Law enforcement defends the practice of overcharging in a criminal case by claiming that it allows a defendant to work out a plea bargain that is less than the prosecutor’s original position but still promotes public safety by obtaining a penalty that will punish the offender.

Overcharging is used by law enforcement to strong-arm defendants into a plea bargain. If a defendant is facing 5 charges as opposed to 1, the defendant knows that they could be convicted of all 5 charges and face the penalty on each individual charge. But by pleading guilty to just one or two of these charges, the prosecutor secures a conviction and the defendant avoids the possibility of additional jail time.

While overcharging in a criminal case is theoretically impermissible, courts are unlikely to address claims of overcharging because the charges are often supported by probable cause. While a trial might ultimately lead to a Not Guilty verdict on a particular charge, the charge is still supported by probable cause.

Moreover, while a police officer can be sued in a civil lawsuit for wrongful arrest, prosecutors enjoy complete immunity as long as they are performing the duties of a prosecutor.

Why Is Overcharging in a Criminal Case a Problem?

While overcharging in a criminal case is common, that does not mean it’s right. Once a person is charged with an offense they need to spend money to hire a lawyer. And in many cases, people who are charged with a crime will face at least temporary incarceration.

Prosecutors are vested with a tremendous amount of power as the can singlehandedly determine a punishment by deciding what crime or crimes they wish to charge a defendant with. When coupled with mandatory minimum sentences, this means prosecutors can easily place pressure on a defendant to take a plea bargain to avoid the possibility of a longer sentence for additional or more severe crimes.

From a systemic standpoint, overcharging benefits the prosecutor, who knows that a defendant is likely to plead to a lesser offense rather than take a case to trial. As a result, more than 95% of criminal cases nation-wide result in a plea bargain.

Benefits of a Plea Bargain

The reality of the present situation, however, is that there are significant benefits to a plea bargain. When a defendant agrees to a plea bargain, everyone knows what the likely outcome will be. The prosecutor is assured that there will be a conviction, and the defendant has a relatively clear picture of the penalties he or she will be facing.

By going to trial, the outcome is no longer in anyone’s control but the jury. Of course, in some cases, trial is the best or even only choice.

If You Are Facing Criminal Charges, Contact Just Criminal Law Today

If you or someone you care about is facing criminal charges, it’s important that you have an experienced Wyoming criminal defense lawyer on your side.

Contact Wyoming attorney Christina L. Williams and her team of criminal defense professionals at Just Criminal Law Call us at 307-686-6556, email inquiry@justcriminallaw.com, or complete our online form.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article is offered for educational purposes only. This information is not offered as legal advice. A person accused of a crime should always consult with an attorney before making decisions that have legal consequences.