Prosecutors have a tremendous amount of power in the United States. It’s ultimately a prosecutor who decides who gets charged, what charges they face and whether or not a plea deal is offered.
Sometimes, an individual’s “prosecutorial discretion” is used to overcharge a defendant.
How does overcharging work?
“Overcharging” refers to any situation where a prosecutor uses their considerable authority to bring far more serious charges against a defendant than actually warranted. This can be done by stacking one charge on top of another for a single offense or by simply elevating a misdemeanor to a felony (or a lower-level felony to a higher one) whenever possible.
For example, maybe you were caught with a few Oxycontin pills in your pocket wrapped in a couple of baggies. Although they were for personal use, the prosecutor may decide that the baggies indicate that you were actually intending to sell the drugs. If so, what might be a simple possession charge could turn into possession with intent to sell – which is treated much more severely.
Why does overcharging happen?
The motives behind overcharging may vary, but they can generally be broken down into one of the following prosecutorial goals:
- Coercing a plea bargain: A defendant who is expecting a simple possession charge may be terrified if they hear that the prosecutor intends to charge them with drug trafficking, and that can cause them to jump on any plea deal that’s offered. In situations like these, overcharging is just a way for the prosecutor to gain a tactical advantage during plea negotiations.
- Securing a conviction on at least some of the charges: This is the old “throw everything at them and see what sticks” method of prosecution. If there are enough charges tossed at a defendant, the prosecution may figure that the higher-level charges will probably never be proven, but that some of the lower charges may ultimately result in a conviction once the case goes to a jury.
Overcharging, like all other forms of prosecutorial overreach, puts unfair pressure on defendants – and it’s virtually impossible for defendants to adequately protect themselves. If you’re facing drug charges or a loved one has been arrested, it’s wisest to learn everything you can about your defense options. Seeking legal guidance promptly is a good place to start.