Penal Code Section 654 - Prohibition Against Multiple Punishments Related to the Same Act

In Los Angeles, it is not unusual to see a criminal complaint filed alleging several counts, many of which may seem to be overlapping. This is often seen in Driving Under the Influence (“DUI”) cases, where a prosecutor may charge a defendant with both driving under the influence in violation of Vehicle Code Section 23152(a) and driving with a BAC above 0.08 percent in violation of Vehicle Code Section 23152(b). However, California law protects defendants against multiple punishments for the same act. Under Penal Code Section 654, a person cannot be punished for the same conduct under more than one provision of the law.

Penal Code Section 654 and Prohibition Against Double Jeopardy

Double jeopardy is a longstanding legal principle protecting defendants from multiple prosecutions and punishments for the same incident. California’s prohibition against double jeopardy can be found in Penal Code Section 687. Similar to Section 687, Penal Code Section 654 also protects a defendant from being punished multiple times for the same conduct.

Penal Code Section 654 states that an act or omission punishable by different provisions of the law may be punished under either of the provisions, but not both. This protects defendants from overzealous prosecutions and being punished twice for the same act or omission.

Why Do Prosecutors Charge Multiple Counts for the Same Conduct?

When a defendant is charged with a crime, it is not unusual for the filing prosecutor to file multiple different counts, even when there is only one act or omission alleged. This allows the prosecution to pursue multiple different theories of guilt against the defendant.

In the DUI example listed above, by filing both driving under the influence under Vehicle Code Section 23152(a) and driving with a BAC above 0.08 percent in violation of Vehicle Code section 23152(b), the prosecution can try to obtain a DUI conviction in multiple ways. If the defendant is convicted of both DUI counts, the counts would merge for the purposes of sentencing. The defendant would only have one DUI conviction on his record, and not two.

When Is a Crime a Single Act?

When conducting an analysis under Penal Code Section 654, there may be a dispute as to what constitutes a single act. Courts will often apply the “transaction test” to determine whether offenses charged were a single act or several, separate acts. Multiple offenses will be considered a single act when they are all considered part of the same “transaction.” A single transaction is a continuous course of conduct close in both time and space. The more time and space there is between acts, the less likely the offense would be considered part of the same transaction.

Another example would be a battery case in which the defendant is accused of punching the victim five times on the head and body in a period of 30 seconds. If the prosecutor charged five counts of battery, this would be considered part of the same transaction and would merge under Penal Code Section 654 for sentencing purposes. However, if the same defendant came back and hit the same victim every day for five days, the five counts of battery would not merge and he or she could be punished separately for each count.

If you or a loved one have been charged with multiple counts for a single act, it is critical that you speak with a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney immediately. Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer Michael Kraut is a former Deputy District Attorney with over 14 years of prosecutorial experience who works hard to ensure his clients get the best defense possible.

For more information about criminal cases, contact Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Michael Kraut at the Kraut Criminal & DUI Lawyers located at 6255 Sunset Boulevard, Suite 1520, Los Angeles, CA 90028. Mr. Kraut can be reached 24/7 at (888) 334-6344 or (323) 464-6453.

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