Doctrine of Merger in Criminal Sentencing

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What Is the Doctrine of Merger?

The doctrine of merger applies in a criminal setting where the defendant committed two or more crimes in a single act, but is only charged with one crime. Essentially, the multiple instances are "merged" by a judge, or combined into a single charge. Thus, according to the merger doctrine, a defendant may sometimes serve a criminal sentence for only one crime instead of several.

A defendant may not be tried, convicted, and sentenced for the same crime twice. Being put to trial of the same crime twice is known as “double jeopardy,” and is prohibited by the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The merger doctrine was instituted as a way to help avoid issues with double jeopardy.

What Types of Crimes May Be Merged?

The rules governing merger vary by state, and also by federal regulations.  However, the following principles generally apply:

Thus, whether a crime merges with another crime depends largely on the type of crime that is involved, the timing of the crime, and whether the crime was completed. The merger doctrine is most commonly applied to situations where a lesser included offense is merged with a more serious offense. 

How Does the Merger Doctrine Affect Sentencing?

1) Fewer Charges: The doctrine of merger allows the defendant to receive a fewer number of charges on their criminal record. Instead of being charged with more than one crime, the defendant will only be convicted of one crime.

2) Severity of Consequences: The merger doctrine may also result in a less severe sentence for the defendant than if they were to be charged with each separate crime. In instances where a lesser crime merges with a more serious crime, the defendant will often have to serve the criminal punishments for the more serious crime, and the penalties for the lesser crime will not be enforced.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you are facing criminal charges, and especially for more than one crime, you should consult with a criminal lawyer for advice. An attorney can help determine whether any of your charges will merge with another. Similarly, if you feel that a lower court has made a mistake by trying you for two crimes that should have been merged, you should speak to a lawyer about an appeal. 

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Last Modified: 09-08-2014 03:40 PM PDT

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