The merger doctrine applies in criminal law matters. When a defendant may have committed multiple crimes within one incident they may end up only being convicted of one criminal conviction due to the merger doctrine.
The merger doctrine provides a benefit to criminal defendants by merging the related charges into one criminal conviction rather than a conviction for multiple counts or crimes.
While this usually results in the more serious offense being the last one standing rather than the minor offenses, the defendant benefits from the doctrine by only being sentenced for the one conviction rather than several. This also helps the defendant with regard to their record.
What is Double Jeopardy and How Does the Merger Doctrine Help Prevent It?
Double jeopardy is a constitutional protection under the 5th amendment for those accused and later convicted of crimes. The constitution prohibits a person being prosecuted twice or more for the what is basically the same act or set of acts. Essentially, they should not be placed into “jeopardy of life or limb” more than once for the criminal act.
By merging the offense that are substantially related to the final convicted offense, the states and federal prosecution offices cannot charge the merged the offenses a second time even though there is no conviction of those charges.
What Crimes Qualify for Merging?
There are always differences across states and the federal legal system. However, generally, merger applies in two primary areas of criminal law:
- Lesser included offenses. When a defendant commits an act or series of acts that comprise one criminal offense, there may be more than one offenses that apply to that act. Lesser included offenses are those crimes that have similar elements to the more serious crime the defendant is convicted of and as a result will be merged with the more serious offense for sentencing purposes.
Consider the following example: a defendant is found guilty of entering the victim’s property without permission, breaking their window and climbing through it. Once inside, the defendant takes the victim’s television and computer before escaping the residence. The most serious offense the defendant has committed is burglary, a felony. The lesser offenses, and the ones that will likely be merged with the burglary conviction, include:
- Attempted Criminal Offenses. There are many crimes in which only an attempt of the crime constitutes its own criminal offense. However, if the defendant is found to have committed the completed crime, then the attempted charge is merged with the completed offense.
What Criminal Law Scenarios Do Not Allow Merging of Crimes or Sentences?
In order for criminal charges or convictions to be merged, the offenses must be closely related. There are some situations in which the crimes will not qualify for merging:
- Different Elements: If one of the listed crimes have a different element, then the two cannot be merged.
- Different Evidence to Support One or More Elements: If the state offers different evidence to support the conviction of the second crime, then the crimes cannot be merged.
- Crimes Were Not at the Same Time: If a defendant stole a candy bar from Store A today and then returned to the store the next day and stole the same kind of item again, that will result in two separate criminal charges that are not eligible for merging because they occurred at different times.
- Conspiracy Charges: Many serious criminal acts also have the added charge of conspiracy for the crime and that does not merge with the completed offense.
- For example, if a spouse conspires with their new lover and plans the murder of the victim spouse and then carries out the murder, they can be convicted for both the murder and the charge of conspiracy to commit murder.
What is the Impact of Merging Criminal Offenses for the Defendant?
When the defendant’s crimes are merged, it tends to benefit the defendant in two ways:
- Fewer charges are recorded on the defendant’s record. In the burglary example above, the defendant could be charged with burglary, trespass, destruction of property and theft.
- However, if the defendant is convicted of the burglary, then the remaining charges may be merged into the burglary conviction thus showing only the conviction for burglary. Rather than four convictions on their record, they will only have the one.
- Shorter sentences or lesser penalties. If the defendant’s lesser charges are merged as in the burglary example, then they will only be subject to the maximum penalties for the burglary crime and none of the penalties for the other three.
Do I Need a Criminal Lawyer to Help Me with the Merging of Criminal Offenses?
If you are facing criminal charges, you should consult a criminal defense lawyer immediately. A lawyer can explain your rights, investigate whether you have any defenses to the crimes charged, and represent you in court.