One of the most confusing things for defendants (and sometimes attorneys!) about criminal cases is the merger of offenses. Simply put, when a defendant is charged with multiple crimes that are based on the same set of facts, certain charges can be so related to each other that they “merge” for sentencing purposes.
When this happens, the defendant can only be convicted and/or sentenced for one crime, and not both (or more) of the merged offenses. This protection is rooted in the “Double Jeopardy” clause in the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which besides the prohibition on being tried twice for the same crime, protects a defendant against being punished in multiple ways for the same crime.
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The flip side of this protection, though, is when crimes do not merge, and the defendant faces punishment for all charged offenses. This area of the law has been confused for quite some time in Ohio; recently, in State v. Ruff, the Supreme Court of Ohio clarified the issue somewhat. In Ohio, a statute permits only a single conviction for conduct that constitutes “allied offenses of similar import.”
What “import” means has been a source of many cases and much debate. Despite all this discussion, “import” generally means “effect.” In Ruff, the Court clarified that offenses have dissimilar import – that is, do not merge – when they cause harm to separate victims, or when the harm caused is “separate and identifiable.”
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By way of example, in Ruff, the defendant was accused of breaking into three separate women’s homes and raping them. Accordingly, he was charged with three counts of rape, and three counts of aggravated burglary – burglary that results in or threatens physical harm. The physical harm, in this case, was the rape.
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Ruff argued that the rape and burglary charges should have merged, and thus his 40-year sentence was inappropriate because he should have been sentenced for the rapes, or the burglaries, but not both. The appeals court agreed that the same conduct established both the rapes and physical harm component to make the burglaries “aggravated.”
The Supreme Court, however, reversed that ruling and sent the case back the appeals court, ruling that the analysis for merger must focus on the facts of a case and the offenses. That focus means that the import of a crime – its effect – will frequently determine if the given offenses can or will merge.
Because the same acts can carry different imports if they cause harm that is separate and identifiable, Ruff’s actions in breaking into the homes and raping the women might not merge if the harm from the burglary can be separated and identified as separate from the harm of the rape. This analysis is one that will be crucial to many, many sentencing hearings in the future, as courts attempt to tease out where the same actions may have harmed the same people, in different ways.