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Crimes such as possession of drugs and weapons, or speeding, can continue for long periods of time if not interupted.

If evidence of the crimes comes to light later, what sort of rules limit the count of convictions that can be made?

For instance if illegal drugs are possesed for a long time, can that be more than one count of posession? What if the same drugs are posessed, discarded, and then picked up again?

Or if a weapon is illegally posessed in a public place, can there be a separate count each time the defendant goes into the public place?

If somoene speeds in a motor vehicle over a long distance can that give rise to multiple speeding offences?

I've posed multiple questions here but I'm curious about the general principles that may apply, hence posting as one question.

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  • I realise long distance uninterupted speeding can be prosecuted as multiple offences via automatic speed cameras placed along the route. But it seems there must be some limit to how close together these can be placed - it would be patently unjust to be prosecuted separately for every millimeter of travel. The question is about how that limit is determined.
    – bdsl
    Commented Feb 6, 2022 at 18:51
  • IIR there was a case in UK many years ago of a motorist who drove into a village exceeding the speed limit, dropped to within the law, and then exceeded the limit before leaving the village. The police successfully brought two speeding prosecutions, but if the driver had sped right through the village, it could only have been one – for a more serious offence. Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 0:57
  • See "Counting Offenses" by Jeffrey M. Chemerinsky: scholarship.law.duke.edu/dlj/vol58/iss4/4 . This 38 page note from 2009 addresses questions like these, and is freely available online. I've just found it so haven't had a chance to read through, but a main point seems to be that these courts have not given clear and consistent answers.
    – bdsl
    Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 0:06
  • As a potential juror, if I saw multiple charges for a continuous action (say breaking both kneecaps or speeding a half mile apart), I would consider it persecution not prosecution and view all of the charges as tainted at best, possibly even totally bogus.
    – jmoreno
    Commented Jan 23 at 23:13
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    Sure, part of my point is that charging is at the prosecutor’s discretion so the decision isn’t purely “can they” but “will it help or hurt the case”. I may be an outlier, but not unique, charging for each leaf of weed may be legally defensible, it may also prevent a conviction.
    – jmoreno
    Commented Jan 24 at 1:36

5 Answers 5

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For instance if illegal drugs are possessed for a long time, can that be more than one count of possession?

Generally, a continuous period of possession would be one count, and in practice, usually only an instance when someone is caught red handed in possession is usually charged.

What if the same drugs are possessed, discarded, and then picked up again?

In theory, that could be an issue. In practice, it almost never comes up as only the possession at the time of a search or arrest is charged in the vast majority of cases.

Or if a weapon is illegally possessed in a public place, can there be a separate count each time the defendant goes into the public place?

Usually, a continuous period of possession would be charged as a single count.

Also, in sentencing, when there are multiple counts, sentences for multiple counts arising from the same nucleus of facts and circumstances, call it the same course of action or event, are usually served concurrently, so that only the longest sentence matters, rather than consecutively, although there are exceptions, for example, in cases where there are multiple victims of certain violent crimes.

If someone speeds in a motor vehicle over a long distance can that give rise to multiple speeding offenses?

Speeding is almost always charged as a single offense at the time someone is stopped for it, in practice. Someone on a long trip who is stopped multiple times (often in different states) could get multiple speeding citations, in multiple stops, however.

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    Someone who speeds away from the officer after getting a ticket can get multiple citations in a matter of minutes.
    – Mark
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 4:08
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    Thanks, nice answer. Don't automatic speed cameras change the situation for speeding? They don't make the defendant stop immediately. It would be great if you could add details of authoritative any court cases where these issues have been disputed - e.g. prosecution has attempted to lay multiple counts and courts have ruled some out.
    – bdsl
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 10:19
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That is what the term "representative charge" is for.

Similar charges may be joined ("amalgamated") into one representative charge, or a representative charge may be divided into separate ones (s 21). Whatever the court sees fit.

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Jeffrey M. Chemerinsky, a US Attorney and former Federal Prosecutor wrote about almost exactly this question in the USA in "Counting Offenses".

It's a 38 page document, so I won't attempt to paraphrase it in full here, but I can give some gists taken from reading it as a non-lawer / non-expert and non-American. The document is free to download from Duke.

Counting offences matters because among other things it has implications for sentencing, double jeopardy, and triggering specific statutes about repeat offending.

The starting point seems to be that any continuous un-interrupted act is a single offence, and can only be charged as one offence. In some cases an act can be divided and successfully charged as multiple offences, but there is not any great consistently applied rationale for how to do so. There are many cases where the division of course of conduct into multiple offences for charging has been disputed and courts have ruled in various ways.

When a statute specifically sets a "unit of prosecution" then the courts can follow that, as in the case of "a statute that made each day of practicing medicine without a license its own crime". But it is extremely rare that legislators specify a unit in this way.

Chemerinsky does not mention a specific case of illegally possessing a weapon for a long time, but he talks about the case of In re Snow, where the Supreme Court determined that a long period of illegal cohabitation should be charged as only a single offence. And Chemerinsky considers a hypothetical cases of a gun being illegally possessed for a year and concludes that "[convicting one count for each week and thus] sentencing this defendant to 260 years in prison [would violate the Eighth Amendment]".

There is no discussion of speeding offences, but there is discussion of Foley v. Commonwealth in which the Court of Appeals of Kentucky "held that multiple convictions for fleeing and evading law enforcement violated the prohibition on double jeopardy", as the court ruled "that fleeing or evading, under circumstances as occurred in this case, is a single continuous act, regardless of how many police officers may be considered to have given an order to stop.”"

Many of the crimes where this has been an issue have been violent crimes, which is something that I didn't consider in my question.

It seems that generally repeated violent acts done effectively continuously in a very short time frame, all of the same type and for the same reasons, in the same event, and without interruption may only be charged as a single offence, while acts that are spread over a longer time, or with some interruption between them, or where there was a so-called "a fork in the road" "giving the defendant a chance to stop and reconsider his" separating acts, then acts before and after the "fork" can be charged as separate offences. But there seems to be a lot of uncertainty and inconsistency in how courts have dealt with this between different cases.


Jeffrey M. Chemerinsky, Counting Offenses, 58 Duke Law Journal 709-746 (2009)
Available at: https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/dlj/vol58/iss4/4

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The German terms are Tatmehrheit and Gesamtstrafe. Multiple crimes can be judged concurrently, the sentence will fall between the highest individual penalty and the sum of all penalties.

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    I'm not sure if this is the same thing. I'm asking about something that could be seen as one crime that continues over multiple times - like possessing one object illegally for a long period of time or repeatedly - not multiple acts done at the same time.
    – bdsl
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 10:39
  • @bdsl, multiple acts at the same time would be Tateinheit, not Tatmehrheit, I think.
    – o.m.
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 16:54
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A parking ticket, for the same offense, cannot be issued more than once a day. In fact, I don't believe if 2 tickets are issued, both can be entered into the computer system tracking them.

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    Does that mean you could get a ticket at 23:59 and another ticket at 00:00? Or does there have to be 24 hours between the tickets? Is this something written into law or something that's been disputed and the courts have created a rule about?
    – bdsl
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 15:39
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    @bdsl. I think it's a calendar day, but I am not sure. But if you get a ticket during 3 hours when you can't park on a street, don't remove the ticket until the 3 hours are over. Or they can write another one even though they'll have to deal with the fact that they can't enter it into their computer system tracking the tickets. They are allowed to make clerical mistakes though. So they might just enter it as a different offense and you'll be forced to deal with the mismatch of the offense in the ticket and in the computer. I am speaking from experience.
    – grovkin
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 15:47
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    @bdsl But if the question is how often can you get a ticket if you leave your car parked next to a fire hydrant (which is illegal at all times), my best guess would be once during each calendar day unless you remove the ticket.
    – grovkin
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 15:57
  • "In fact, I don't believe if 2 tickets are issued, both can be entered into the computer system tracking them": surely not every city uses the same computer system, and surely getting a ticket for parking in front of a fire hydrant or violating a parking meter doesn't give you license to park in front of fire hydrants or violating parking meters everywhere in the city for the rest of the day.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 0:53
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    @Mark sure. I was mostly trying to demonstrate that the answer is overly generalized. I would be extremely surprised if the the statement about computer systems applies to the entire state of New Jersey.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 9:53

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