What the ‘Doctrine of Merger’ Is and How It May Greatly Reduce the Final Sentence in Your Criminal Case in Maryland

There are so many reasons why representation from a skillful Maryland criminal defense attorney is worthwhile. One of those reasons is that there are countless areas of the law that are well-known to criminal defense attorneys, but largely unknown outside those circles. By having a knowledgeable attorney on your side, you can have the full benefit of all of the law, and make sure that your rights are protected to the maximum.

One of those areas of the law is “merger.” Even people who have a little bit of knowledge of the law probably think that the law of “merger” refers simply to the process of two business entities combining to form one, larger business. In Maryland though, “merger” has an important meaning in criminal law and, as one case recently demonstrated, it can make a massive difference in the amount of time you serve.

First, here’s a little background about criminal sentences. Say you’ve been put on trial for several crimes. The jury hears the evidence and acquits you of some charges, but convicts you on two crimes. The judge sentences you to serve two years for Crime A and 10 years for Crime B, and also declares that the sentences shall run “consecutively.” That means that your total time of imprisonment is the one sentence plus the sentence for the second crime. In other words, 12 years. (With “concurrent sentences,” the total imprisonment would’ve been 10 years.)

Generally, judges have the discretion to hand down either concurrent or consecutive sentences, so if you’re that hypothetical defendant from the preceding paragraph, you’re on the hook for the 12-year stint, right? Not necessarily. As a recent Court of Appeals case reminds everyone, depending on the details of your case, the law in Maryland may dictate a much shorter sentence for you.

In that case, K.F. was on trial for many crimes, but the jury convicted on only two: fourth-degree sexual offense and second-degree assault. The judge sentenced the man to one year for the sexual offense charge and 10 years for the assault and declared that the sentences would run consecutively. This would mean a sentence of 11 years.

That was an error by the judge, however. Something called the “doctrine of merger” dictated a much, much shorter sentence. That concept says that, if you are convicted on multiple offenses that all took place in one incident, then those multiple crimes may “merge” into one criminal conviction.

Generally, the doctrine of merger will mean that you’ll serve a sentence for the most serious crime, and that usually means serving the longer of the two sentences… but not always! The law of merger in criminal sentencing in Maryland doesn’t actually say that you serve the sentence for the most serious crime, it says you serve the sentence for the crime with the most elements.

Those are often the same charge, but not every time. In K.F.’s case, every element of second-degree assault was also an element of fourth-degree sexual offense. The only difference was that fourth-degree sexual assault had one extra element that second-degree assault didn’t; namely, “that the assaultive conduct be sexual in nature.”

A sentence, not 11 years long, but instead just one year

By rule, that meant that the charges merged and that K.F. must be sentenced based on the sexual offense charge, not the assault charge – regardless of the sentence of each. For this defendant, that meant a sentence of, not a decade or more, but rather only one year.

That outcome might be surprising and it’s probably something that’s counter-intuitive to most laypeople, but it is, nevertheless, the law in Maryland.

The rules erected by Maryland criminal law regarding assault and other crimes may not always be what you, as a layperson, would expect or think they’d be. The key, then, is not to rely simply on your own knowledge and skill, but instead to put your case in the hands of a skilled and experienced legal professional. The diligent Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC have been providing that kind of effective legal representation to the accused in Maryland for many years. To learn more about how you can put this office to work for you, contact us at 888-519-2801 or via our online form.

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