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Can a Judge “Stack” Sentences for Multiple Crimes Arising from the Same Incident?

In Texas criminal law, it is possible for a defendant to be charged with multiple crimes arising from the same incident. Under the Texas Penal Code, the general rule is that when a person “is found guilty of more than one offense arising out of the same criminal episode prosecuted in a single criminal action,” their sentences must run “concurrently.” In other words, unless some specific statutory exception applies, the judge may not “stack” the defendant’s convictions and sentence them each separately.

CCA: Defendant’s Plea Not “Involuntary” Due to Trial Judge’s Mistake

Unfortunately, there are cases where defendants–and even judges–get confused on this point. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently addressed such a situation in Martinez v. State. In this case, the Court was asked to decide whether or not a plea agreement was rendered invalid by a trial judge’s suggestion he might be allowed to stack sentences.

According to court records, prosecutors charged the defendant with 13 counts of state-jail felony burglary. The maximum sentence for each individual charge was 2 years in prison. After lengthy negotiations, the prosecution and the defense reached an agreement, under which the plaintiff agreed to plead guilty to some of the alleged offenses.

At a hearing on the plea agreement, the judge told the defendant, “I can run all of the cases together at the same time or I can stack all the cases, one upon the other. So if I gave you two years on one, for all practical purposes, you would end up with twelve years in the penitentiary if I decided to stack them; do you understand that?” The defendant said he understood and entered his guilty pleas accordingly. The judge then sentenced the defendant consecutively on three of the counts.

An intermediate appeals court held the judge erred in stacking the sentences. But the court then went a step further and said the judge’s error effectively rendered the defendant’s guilty plea “involuntary,” as he acted “under the false impression that, were he to plead not guilty and be convicted at trial, cumulation of sentences would be a lawful option for the trial court.” The prosecution then appealed this finding to the Court of Criminal Appeals.

And in fact, the Court of Criminal Appeals held the intermediate appeals court overstepped its bounds. The Court noted that the record in this case did not prove that “the trial court’s erroneous admonishment about stacking played any part in [defendant’s] decision to plead guilty.” Indeed, while the judge and the prosecutor thought “stacking was always permissible,” there was no evidence the defendant thought this as well. The Court also pointed out that the “possibility of stacking would have existed if the cases had been tried separately.”

Speak with a Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer Today

Pleading guilty to a crime is never a decision to be entered into lightly. And you cannot rely on the judge or the prosecution to fully look out for your interests during any plea bargain. That is why you need to work with an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney whose only concern is protecting your rights. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Galveston or League City today if you need advice or assistance with respect to any criminal justice matter.