Penal Code 654 PC | Multiple Punishments for the Same Act

Penal Code 654 PC | Multiple Punishments for the Same Act

Penal Code 654 PC is a California law that prohibits multiple punishments for the same criminal act or omission. This law comes into play when a defendant commits an act or series of acts that violate multiple criminal laws. The purpose of PC 654 is to prevent prosecutors from “piling on” multiple punishments for the same criminal conduct.

For example, say someone breaks into a house and steals items inside. This could potentially violate California burglary laws, theft laws, and vandalism laws if property was damaged. But under PC 654, the person can only be punished for one of those offenses. The separate offenses merge into one crime for purposes of sentencing.

But PC 654 gets complicated when there are multiple victims or the defendant has separate criminal objectives. This article will explain the law on multiple punishments in California, when PC 654 applies, and potential defenses.

The Law on Multiple Punishments in California

Penal Code 654 PC states:

An act or omission that is punishable in different ways by different provisions of law shall be punished under the provision that provides for the longest potential term of imprisonment, but in no case shall the act or omission be punished under more than one provision.

In plain English, this means a defendant cannot be punished multiple times for the same criminal act or omission. Even if the act violates several laws, the defendant can only be punished once.

For example:

  • Joe breaks into Mary’s house and steals her jewelry. He can be punished for the burglary or the theft but not both.
  • Linda attacks John, breaking his nose and bruising his ribs. She can be punished for assault but not for both the broken nose and bruised ribs.

The one punishment imposed will typically be for the offense with the longest prison sentence. Prosecutors can’t get around 654 PC by charging multiple lower-level offenses.

When Does Penal Code 654 Apply?

California courts apply PC 654 in two main situations:

  1. Single Act: The defendant commits an act violating more than one criminal statute.
  2. Single Course of Conduct: The defendant engages in a course of conduct (a series of acts) that violates more than one criminal statute.

Some examples where PC 654 prohibits multiple punishments:

  • Joe punches Mary in the face, breaking her nose. He committed one act (the punch) that violated both assault and battery laws.
  • Linda embezzles money from her employer over a 6-month period. Her series of acts constitutes one course of conduct amounting to grand theft.

The defendant’s intent and objective are key factors when deciding if multiple offenses are part of an “indivisible course of conduct” under PC 654.1 If the offenses were committed with a “single intent and objective,” then the defendant can likely only be punished once even if multiple crimes occurred.

Exceptions – When Multiple Punishments Are Allowed

There are certain exceptions when Penal Code 654 does NOT bar multiple punishments for the same act or course of conduct:

  1. Separate Victims: Multiple punishments are permitted if the act or course of conduct harmed multiple victims.2 For example, a defendant who sprays gunfire into a crowd can be separately punished for each person injured.
  2. Separate Acts: The defendant can be separately punished for multiple criminal acts, even if they are part of an otherwise “indivisible course of conduct.” For example, a defendant who breaks into a house, steals items, and then sets the house on fire can be punished for the burglary, theft, and arson.3
  3. Separate Intent and Objective: If the defendant harbored multiple criminal objectives that were independent of each other, then he/she can be punished for each crime committed in pursuit of each objective.4

Prosecutors frequently argue that one of the above exceptions applies whenever a defendant raises a PC 654 defense. The application of 654 PC to a given case often involves very fact-specific inquiries. Defendants should consult with an experienced California criminal defense attorney to determine if 654 applies to their case.

Penal Code 654 Defenses

There are various arguments and defenses that criminal defendants can raise under Penal Code 654 to avoid multiple punishments. Some of these include:

  • The multiple offenses were committed through a single act or indivisible course of conduct with a single intent and objective.
  • The prosecutor improperly “stacked” multiple charges for one criminal act or series of acts.
  • The alleged “multiple” victims were not truly separate victims (for example, if the victims were relatives or connected to each other).
  • The defendant did not entertain multiple criminal objectives when committing the alleged acts.
  • The alleged “separate” acts were too closely connected in time and location to be considered truly separate.

A skilled California criminal defense lawyer can evaluate the facts of the case and applicable law to identify the best PC 654 defenses. The attorney can then argue to the court that multiple punishments are prohibited and certain charges should be dismissed.

Penal Code 654 and Sentencing

If the court determines that PC 654 prohibits multiple punishments, the judge will impose sentence on just one of the offenses. Typically this will be the offense with the longest potential prison term.5

For instance, say a defendant is convicted of:

  • Grand theft (3 years in jail)
  • Petty theft (6 months in jail)

Here the court would impose punishment for the grand theft only, since it carries the longest sentence. The petty theft conviction would be stayed or effectively set aside.

However, if part of the sentence for one offense could be served separately, the court may impose that portion of the sentence. For example, the court could stay the jail term for petty theft but still impose a fine.6

In addition, just because the court stays punishment on one offense at initial sentencing does not mean the stay is permanent. If the conviction on the other offense gets reversed on appeal, the stay on the first offense can be lifted so the defendant still serves some punishment.7

How We Can Help

Penal Code 654 PC is a complex statute that requires an in-depth understanding of California sentencing laws. An experienced California criminal defense attorney can advise whether PC 654 prohibits multiple punishments in your case. If so, the attorney can file motions asking the court to dismiss or stay certain charges.

At the California Defense Lawyers firm, we have successfully argued PC 654 defenses on behalf of clients facing multiple charges for the same conduct. We can carefully review the facts of your case and fight to ensure you do not receive unfair multiple punishments.

To discuss your case in a free and confidential consultation, call us or complete the form on this page.

Legal References:

  1. People v. Harrison (1989) 48 Cal.3d 321, 335.
  2. People v. Correa (2012) 54 Cal.4th 331, 336.
  3. People v. Felix (2001) 92 Cal.App.4th 905, 915.
  4. People v. Liu (1996) 46 Cal.App.4th 1119, 1135.
  5. People v. Siko (1988) 45 Cal.3d 820, 826.
  6. People v. Alford (2010) 180 Cal.App.4th 1463, 1468.
  7. People v. Alford, see footnote 6 above.