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When Can Unrelated Criminal Charges Be Tried Together?

Suppose that you’re charged with having committed two different criminal offenses, but that these have virtually nothing to do with each other. For example, suppose you’re charged on the one hand with having committed a robbery in December and on the other hand with having committed simple assault in July. If you were indicted by a grand jury for both of these offenses, could the government force you to stand trial for both of them at the same time? That is, would the same jury who decided your guilt or innocence of the robbery charge then decide your guilt or innocence of the assault charge? The potential for prejudice is obvious. Perhaps the members of the jury, having concluded that you’re guilty of one of the charges, will simply conclude that you’re a scofflaw and therefore that you likely committed the other offense as well. That’s not consistent, however, with how justice is supposed to be administered under our Constitution. Rather, the government has the burden to prove specific facts that show that you committed each element of each offense beyond a reasonable doubt. And in general, the law reflects this fact by requiring the government to prove that two offenses sought to be tried together be of “the same or similar character.” However, at the same time, the rule is that this provision is “broadly construed in favor of initial joinder.”

A Few Examples

A few cases provide good examples of when joinder is or isn’t allowed. In United States v. Walser, for example, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that it was proper to have a joint trial on charges of perjury and making false statements to a government agency, even though these two counts arose out of discrete events. The Court ruled that the charges were similar because they all related to the cover-up of a fraudulent scheme to obtain federal crop relief. The counts were all similar, the Court said, because the initial falsehoods and the subsequent need to cover up those falsehoods led to the perjury charge. In United States v. Dominguez, the same court ruled that charges of mortgage loan fraud were properly joined with certain drug charges because the mortgage fraud was necessary to conceal the fact the defendant’s money was derived from illegal drug activity. The court explained: “the fact that one illegal activity provides the impetus for the other illegal activity is sufficient to constitute a common scheme for joinder purposes.” By contrast, the charges in our hypothetical robbery-simple assault example above would not necessarily be a fair candidate for joint trial since the events aren’t linked together by any clear point of commonality.

After the government meets its initial burden to establish that the charges are of the same or similar character, the defendant has an opportunity to show that – despite the relatedness of the offenses – nevertheless trying them together would be unfairly prejudicial. This can be especially relevant for defendants in financial fraud or other white collar cases, where jurors may make unfair inferences from one charge to another.

Good Counsel Can Help You Navigate a Complex Case

If you find yourself facing charges for two or more offenses, you need counsel with the ability to advocate for your right to have unrelated charges tried separately. Give experienced Miami based defense counsel Jeffrey S. Weiner, P.A. a call.

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