Can a Person Serve Prison Time for a Crime the Jury Said He/She Did Not Commit?

The answer is yes in federal criminal court. Most of us understand the criminal system in Florida to provide that if a criminal defendant is acquitted (i.e. found not guilty by a jury) of a crime, that defendant should not serve any prison time based on that criminal charge. That seems to make sense; a criminal should only be punished for crimes he/she actually committed. However, it often does not work that way in the federal criminal system. In federal court, a defendant who is found guilty of one charge but not guilty of a second charge may have the conduct related to both charges considered to increase his/her sentence.

For instance, consider a case where a criminal defendant was charged with possession of cocaine in one count and illegal possession of a firearm in a second count. The jury convicts the defendant of the cocaine charge but finds him not guilty of the gun charge. The judge can, and likely will, also consider the defendant’s conduct related to the gun charge in determining the sentence even though the jury acquitted the defendant of that charge. Further, in order to convict a defendant of a crime, the jury must find that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a fairly high standard. The judge is only limited by a preponderance of the evidence standard when deciding whether to consider conduct for which the defendant was found not guilty of a crime in ordering his/her sentence. The preponderance of the evidence standard (greater than 50% likelihood) is much lower than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard.

Therefore, a defendant in a federal criminal case has to be concerned not just with crimes he/she may have committed, but also with crimes that he/she did not commit but were still charged by the prosecutor. This raises another issue as to whether a prosecutor might add questionable charges against a defendant knowing that a jury may likely find the defendant not guilty but also that the conduct based on those extra charges can be used against the defendant during sentencing if he/she is convicted of at least one charge.

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