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What is charge stacking?

On Behalf of | Dec 12, 2023 | Criminal Defense

It’s no secret that the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved through plea agreements of some kind or another. Roughly 98% of federal cases end in plea deals and the state courts aren’t much different.

However, plea deals sometimes serve the state’s interest far more than they do the defendant’s, and prosecutors often aren’t as interested in justice as they are in maintaining a high conviction rate. That’s where “charge stacking” comes into play.

Piling up the charges helps pile on the pressure

Charge stacking is the practice of filing multiple charges against a defendant for a single incident or crime – rather than charging a defendant in a way that accurately reflects their alleged offense.

The purpose of this is to create a sense of fear in the defendant regarding the potential outcome of their cases. More charges mean a more complicated defense and vastly stiffer penalties if a defendant is convicted. That can put a defendant in a great deal of fear about the possibilities, making them more inclined to jump at what might otherwise be seen as a bad plea deal.

For example, imagine that you’re pulled over for a driving infraction. One thing leads to another and you’re arrested for driving under the influence of drugs. When the police search you incident to your arrest, they find a pipe and a pack of rolling papers. Charge stacking would involve something like charging you with drugged driving, the possession of drugs (due to any residue on the pipe, no matter how small) and one count of possession of drug paraphernalia for the pipe and each rolling paper in your possession.

Do you think that sounds absurd? You’re not alone, but charge stacking is used to apply pressure on defendants in all kinds of cases. In the example mentioned above, a prosecutor may really want you to plead guilty to the drugged driving charge, so they might offer to drop all of the possession and paraphernalia charges in exchange for your agreement.

If you are facing “stacked” charges related to a drug crime or some other offense, don’t panic. Seeking experienced legal guidance is the best way to understand both the charges against you and your available defenses.