How Does Charge Stacking Work?

September 13, 2023 Criminal Defense

When an individual is accused of committing a crime, the prosecution is responsible for filing the relative charges for that alleged offense. One common practice that prosecutors tend to use is “charge stacking.” This controversial method has brought criticism due to its potentially harsh stance on excessive punishment.

This page will provide insight into charge stacking, how it works in the criminal justice system, and the criticism against the method.

What is Charge Stacking?

Charge stacking is referred to when prosecutors charge overlapping and duplicative offenses against one defendant.

For example, a person charged with theft of a motor vehicle, may also face stacked or “piled on” charges such as “unauthorized use of a vehicle” and “possession of stolen property.” Charge stacking is not a new phenomenon—there are examples dating back to the 1800s. Unfortunately, charge stacking can happen to any defendant, as the government can, “divide crime and multiply punishment.”

How Charge Stacking Works

Academics, advocates, and the general public seem to be in agreement that charge stacking is pervasive and prejudicial to a defendant’s rights. This is because prosecutors are being accused of charging overlapping offense as a way to build pressure against the defendant and their attorney. This can occur even when fewer charges would be considered sufficient to the culpability of the defendant.

The reason charge stacking continuously works is because criminal law provides that a single criminal incident can constitute multiple crimes. For example, burglary is technically considered trespassing, as well. Since both Federal and State Rules of Criminal Procedure permit the prosecution of multiple offenses, charge stacking or “charge joinders” are enabled.

When a defendant is facing stacked charges, the prosecutor will likely agree to reduce the charges in quantity or severity in exchange for a guilty plea. That means even if the defendant is innocent, they may feel pressured to accept a plea deal rather than continue to trial to fight against multiple charges.

Harvard Law Review Study

The Harvard Law Review published a 2023 study to identify the differences between federal and state charge stacking. The States examined in the study included Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Florida.

The text established the charging rules for Florida: Pursuant to Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.151(a), combining charges is permitted in Florida when the offenses occur from the same incident or chain of events. Two or more offenses are related when they can be tried in the same court and are based on the same act or two or more connected acts. Additionally, the defendant can file a motion to sever if they believe that the charges arose from separate transactions, which are distinguishable in time.

Since our firm only represents Florida criminal cases, we will provide the study’s data set for Florida between 2009-2013:

Criminal charges per defendant:

    • Defendants with one charge – 1,522,480 (makes up 64% of all cases)
    • Defendants with two charges – 507,453
    • Defendants with three charges – 173,348
    • Defendants with four charges – 77,979
    • Defendants with five or more charges – 80,479

Trial conviction rate by number of charges:

    • Defendants with one charge – 44% trial conviction rate
    • Defendants with two charges – 56% trial conviction rate
    • Defendants with three charges – 66% trial conviction rate
    • Defendants with four charges – 70% trial conviction rate
    • Defendants with five or more charges – 77% trial conviction rate

Guilty-Plea rate by number of charges:

    • Defendants with one charge – 61% guilty plea rate
    • Defendants with two charges – 69% guilty plea rate
    • Defendants with three charges – 72% guilty plea rate
    • Defendants with four charges – 74% guilty plea rate
    • Defendants with five or more charges – 73% guilty plea rate

Comparison between States and Federal jurisdiction for number of cases and charges between 2009-2013:




Federal Districts















To review the entire study, refer to Harvard Law Review’s page here.

Criticism on Charge Stacking

The study concludes by addressing criminal justice scholar’s concerns about charge stacking. Based on the study’s data, the federal system does not charge defendants with multiple offenses as often as certain states. Furthermore, in states where they charge defendants with multiple offenses often correlate with higher conviction rates. However, the connection between more charges and higher conviction rates are presently shown in both state and federal jurisdictions.

Scholars claim that charge stacking “throws the book” at criminal defendants. There is also fear that if taken to its full limit, charge stacking can result in society to, “likely come ever closer to a world in which the law on the books makes everyone a felon, and in which prosecutors and police both define law on the street and decide who has violated it.”

The following identifies the varying criticism on charge stacking:

Worse Chance for Defendants

Before trial, and even before plea bargaining in some jurisdictions, a defendant facing multiple charges will immediately feel its effects. This can be due to multiple, expensive bond obligations that cause more defendants to sit in jail awaiting their trial. This can prevent a defendant from being able to help their defense attorney.

When considering the jury in a criminal trial, they may be more likely to consider the defendant guilty if they have been charged with multiple offenses. As stated in the study: “The greater number of counts, the greater the jury’s suspicion of criminality.

The American Bar Association previously warned prosecutors against, “’piling on’ charges in order to unduly leverage an accused to forgo his or her right to trial.” Years later, and charge stacking is still viewed as prosecutors’, “fearsome array of tools…to extract confessions and discourage people from exercising their right to a jury trial.”

Contact a Florida Criminal Defense Lawyer Near Me

There is nothing more stressful than facing a criminal charge, except in instances where a defendant is facing stacked charges. When multiple charges and their possible penalties are presented to a defendant, even if they are completely innocent, may result in them believing their only option is to accept a plea deal. However, you should first consider consulting with a defense attorney.

An experienced Tallahassee criminal defense attorney will have a deep understanding of stacked charges and how to accurately fight against them. This may include leveraging plea bargains, accessing applicable resources, or using courtroom experience to take the case to trial. If you or a loved one are facing criminal prosecution, consider hiring Pumphrey Law Firm to represent your case. Our firm is prepared to fight for your freedom while providing support and guidance along the way. To receive a free case consultation, call our office at (850) 681-7777 or leave us an online message.

Written by Karissa Key

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