California law prohibits the courts from imposing multiple punishments for the same criminal act as defined under Penal Code 654 PC.
In other words, if your action violates multiple laws, you can be charged and convicted of multiple crimes for that one act—but you can only be sentenced for the crime carrying the most severe penalty.
This law falls under “double jeopardy” protections and is intended to safeguard California defendants from being excessively punished for the same action. Simply put, this statute prohibits two or more punishments for the same criminal act or omission.
PC 654 says, “(a) An act or omission that is punishable in different ways by different provisions of law may be punished under either of such provisions, but in no case shall the act or omission be punished under more than one provision. An acquittal or conviction and sentence under any one bars a prosecution for the same act or omission under any other.”
Subsection (b) says that a “defendant sentenced pursuant to subdivision (a) shall not be granted probation if any of the provisions that would otherwise apply to the defendant prohibits the granting of probation.”
As noted, this ban on multiple punishments for the same offense is the same concept within California's “double jeopardy” law, which is part of the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
This law guarantees that there are no multiple punishments for the same offense, no prosecution after acquittal for the same crime, and there are no double convictions for the same offense.
However, if someone commits an act that leads them to two separate crimes, they could be charged with both of them in one case through a legal process called a “joinder.” This would include a misdemeanor or felony offense. Let's take a closer look at this law and how it applies.
Penal Code 654 - Explained
Effectively, under PC 654, if multiple criminal violations arise from a single act or course of conduct, only one punishment should be imposed—even if those two offenses carry different punishments.
Typically, the offense carrying the longest potential term of imprisonment will be the sentence imposed.
For example, let's say you're accused of robbing someone at an ATM, then punching them in the face before running off.
Under the law, you can be charged with both first-degree robbery, Penal Code 212.5 PC, a felony, and battery, Penal Code 242 PC, a misdemeanor, and you can even be convicted on both charges.
But you'll only serve a sentence for the felony count of robbery—you can't also be sentenced for the battery charge on top of the robbery charge.
What Constitutes a Single Act?
Note that PC 654 only applies when a single act includes more than one crime. It does not apply if the defendant commits multiple crimes in multiple acts. So the big question is, how does the law determine when it is a single act or multiple acts?
The answer is, in principle, known as the “transaction test.” Effectively, multiple crimes are considered a single act when they occur within the same “transaction.”
A single transaction generally refers to a continuous course of conduct in time and space, meaning it occurs in one place or at least close together.
The courts determine whether a single transaction occurred based on the defendant's intent and objective with the act.
If the defendant committed multiple crimes with the same intent and objective, it constitutes one transaction, so PC 654 applies.
What Are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: John breaks into a home at night in an upscale neighborhood with the intent to steal, Penal Code 460 PC first-degree burglary, then steals $50,000 worth of jewelry as defined under Penal Code 487 PC grand theft.
Since these crimes occurred in the same instance and with the same intent and objective, they constitute one act.
John can be convicted of both crimes, but he can only be sentenced for one. This is because both crimes are felonies, but since first-degree burglary carries a longer potential sentence (six years), John will be sentenced for the burglary offense.
EXAMPLE 2: Fresh out of prison, Fred decides to go on a crime spree. He steals a car, then drives to his ex-girlfriend's house and shoots her in the head in retaliation for testifying against him at his last trial, killing her.
He then goes to a nearby bank and robs it at gunpoint before heading out of town.
While these crimes (grand theft auto, murder, armed bank robbery) all occurred within the same chain of events, it could be argued that Fred had different intents and objectives for each crime committed, and therefore they are separate acts.
Fred can be separately charged and convicted on all counts, and he can be sentenced to consecutive prison terms for all three.
What Is a Joinder?
In California criminal law, “joinder” is the legal process by which prosecutors may include two or more criminal offenses in a single case rather than trying each offense separately.
Not only does this save taxpayer money by reducing court costs, but it gives the prosecutor an advantage because, statistically, joinder cases result in higher conviction rates than if they were tried separately.
A prosecutor may choose to include multiple offenses in a single case if:
- The offenses are based on the same transaction;
- The offenses are based on two or more consecutive acts/transactions; or
- If the offense in question constitutes part of a larger scheme or plan.
Under this principle, prosecutors could roll multiple charges into the same trial whether or not PC 654 applies.
Using the two examples above, John could be tried for both burglary and grand theft in one trial because they were within the same transaction.
At the same time, Fred can also have one trial for all three counts because they were consecutive transactions that were part of a larger scheme.
Suppose a defense attorney believes prosecutors are using the joinder tactic to increase the odds of conviction.
In that case, they may dispute it on the grounds of “prejudicial joinder,” claiming that doing so deprives the defendant of his right to a fair trial.
If you have reason to believe you are charged twice for the same act or have an issue with double jeopardy, contact our law firm to review the case details and legal options. You can contact us by phone by using the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.