included offense | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

An included offense is a criminal charge that is considered a lesser offense than the original charge.

Included offenses exist within a complex legal framework. These offenses are considered less serious than the principal charge faced by the defendant. In a legal context, the term defendant refers to the person who stands accused in a court case. The more serious crime the defendant allegedly committed is referred to as the principal or original charge.

Suppose an individual is charged with burglary, a serious crime. If, during this alleged burglary, they also broke a window to gain entry, this might constitute a separate crime – vandalism. However, as vandalism is a less serious crime and was committed as part of the burglary, it’s considered an included offense.

Contextual Differences

In some parts of the world, the rules governing included offenses differ. These variations largely depend on local laws or jurisdictions. A jurisdiction is a geographical area where a specific set of laws apply.

In some jurisdictions, included offenses are automatically part of the principal charge. This means the defendant could face conviction for both crimes simultaneously. In other areas, however, the prosecutor – the lawyer who represents the government in criminal cases – must explicitly request that an offense be treated as an ‘included’ one.

Streamlining Justice

One benefit of included offenses lies in their ability to streamline legal proceedings. This advantage arises because separate trials are not required for every single charge. Instead, an individual’s actions can be assessed collectively, thus saving time, effort, and resources.

For instance, in our earlier burglary example, the defendant would not face separate trials for burglary and vandalism. Instead, both charges are examined together, making the process more efficient. This method helps the court avoid a possible backlog of cases.

Safeguarding Rights

While included offenses help speed up legal processes, it’s essential to remember that a defendant’s rights must remain protected. The accused person should not be convicted of an included offense without proper evidence supporting the charge. In legal terms, this is known as due process.

Due process refers to the fair treatment an individual should receive during a legal proceeding. It’s a constitutional guarantee that ensures every defendant gets a fair and just trial. Thus, if an included offense is being considered, the prosecution must demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that this lesser crime was committed during the commission of the principal crime.

Model Penal Code

The Model Penal Code (MPC), drafted by the American Law Institute, has influenced many U.S. jurisdictions’ treatment of lesser included offenses. It offers guidance on how to navigate this tricky area of criminal law, and though not legally binding, it has been widely adopted.

According to the MPC, a defendant can be convicted of a crime included within a more serious crime they are charged with, as long as the lesser offense is proven. This included offense is defined as one that is established by proof of the same or less than all facts required to establish the commission of the offense charged (Section 1.07(4) of the MPC).

In practical terms, if a defendant is charged with a serious offense, such as robbery, but the prosecution can only prove a less serious crime, like theft, the defendant could be convicted of theft as a lesser included offense.  In other words, under the Model Penal Code (MPC), a defendant can technically be charged with both the primary offense and a lesser included offense. However, the defendant can only be convicted of the most serious offense proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

If the prosecution is unable to provide sufficient evidence for the primary offense but can establish a lesser included offense, the defendant can be convicted of that lesser included offense. Essentially, this rule allows for a kind of ‘fallback’ for the prosecution if they cannot prove the primary offense.

It’s crucial to note that the MPC provides safeguards against double jeopardy. According to Section 1.07(1)(a) of the MPC, once a person is convicted or acquitted of a certain offense, they can’t be prosecuted again for the same offense or any other offense for which they could have been convicted under the initial charge.

Therefore, while both charges can be levied at the outset, the defendant will ultimately only be convicted of a single offense – either the primary offense or the lesser included offense, depending on the evidence presented during the trial. The defendant will not be convicted of both the primary offense and the lesser included offense. This approach ensures a balance between the interests of justice and the rights of defendants.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/24/2023

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