Penal Code 654 PC - Multiple Punishments for Same Act Prohibited in California

Penal Code 654 PC is the California statute that prohibits two or more punishments for the same criminal act or omission.

According to this statute:

“(a) An act or omission that is punishable in different ways by different provisions of law shall be punished under the provision that provides for the longest potential term of imprisonment, but in no case shall the act or omission be punished under more than one provision. An acquittal or conviction and sentence under anyone bars a prosecution for the same act or omission under any other.”

An example of a PC 654 situation is:

Lisa commits both trespass (under PC 602) and petty theft (under PC 484) when she sneaks into her neighbor's home and takes his watch. In this situation, although Lisa committed two crimes, and may be charged and convicted of both, she can only be punished for the trespass or the petty theft (whichever has the longest term of imprisonment in the county jail).

California courts have adopted the “transaction test” to help determine whether multiple crimes are the result of “one act” or more than one act. This test focuses on an accused's:

  • intent, and
  • objective.

Penal Code 654's ban on multiple punishments for the same offense is one concept within “double jeopardy” under California criminal law. The Double Jeopardy Clause has been written into the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution (and into Penal Code 687). This clause guarantees that there will be:

  • no multiple punishments for the same offense (as within PC 654),
  • no prosecution after acquittal for the same offense, and
  • no double convictions for the same offense.

Please note that if a party commits a certain act that leads to two crimes, then he may be charged with both crimes in a single case or California jury trial. This is done via the legal process of “joinder.” And, prosecutors may join related offenses into one case no matter whether they are:

Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:

man behind bars
PC 654 says that, while an accused may be charged and convicted for more than one crime, he can only be punished for one

1. What is prohibited under Penal Code 654 PC?

Penal Code 654 PC is the California statute that applies to the situation when a person commits one act that leads to more than one criminal charge. In this situation, PC 654 says that, while an accused may be charged and convicted for more than one crime, he can only be punished for one (and that one is the offense with the longest potential term of imprisonment).1

Consider, for example, the situation where Jose commits burglary (under PC 459) when he enters his ex-girlfriend's home with the intent to steal one of her paintings. He then steals the painting, which is the crime of petty theft (under PC 484).

In this example, while Jose commits the single act of breaking into his ex-girlfriend's home and stealing the painting, he commits two crimes. While he can be charged and convicted of both, Penal Code 654 says that he can only be punished with one. And, the one he can be punished with is that offense which has the longest jail term.

If it is determined that a defendant committed multiple crimes, and those resulted from more than one act, then the accused may be punished with each individual offense.

2. What is the transaction test under PC 654?

California courts have adopted the “transaction test” to help determine whether multiple crimes are the result of “one act” or more than one act.2

Under this test, multiple crimes are committed within one act if they are all part of the same transaction.3 In using this test, courts often consider an accused's:

  • intent, and
  • objective.

As stated by one court:

“Whether a course of criminal conduct is divisible and therefore gives rise to more than one act within the meaning of section 654 depends on the intent and objective of the actor. If all of the offenses were incident to one objective, the defendant may be punished for any of such offenses but not for more than one."4

double jeopardy printed on a piece of paper

3. Is Penal Code 654 part of “double jeopardy?”

Penal Code 654's ban on multiple punishments for the same offense is one concept within “double jeopardy” under California law.

The Double Jeopardy Clause has been written into the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution.5 This clause guarantees that there will be:

  • no prosecution after acquittal for the same offense,
  • no double convictions for the same offense, and
  • no multiple punishments for the same offense.6

The double jeopardy clause of the United States Constitution has also been adopted into California state law through California Penal Code 687.7

4. When can a defendant raise double jeopardy as a legal defense?

After certain junctures in the criminal court process, the government loses its power to re-prosecute a defendant for the same offense. When this happens, the law says that the defendant was already "once in jeopardy" or that "jeopardy attaches."

Below are the most common instances where jeopardy has attached and therefore the defense of double jeopardy applies:

  1. an accused was previously placed on trial for the same offense,
  2. a defendant was acquitted of the same offense,
  3. a case against the accused was dismissed based on the merits of the charge,
  4. when a misdemeanor charge is involved and the prosecutor fails to bring the case to trial in a timely manner,
  5. a defendant was convicted of the same offense, and
  6. an accused entered into a prior plea deal that involved the same charge.

5. What is “joinder?”

If a party commits a certain act that leads to multiple crimes, then he may be charged with all the offenses in a single case or California jury trial. This is done via the legal process of joinder.

Prosecutors may join two or more offenses in the same case if either:

  • the offenses are based on the same act or transaction,
  • the offenses are based on two or more acts or transactions connected together,
  • the offenses constitute a common scheme or plan.

In short, the D.A. does not have to bring a separate case for each separate offense if those offenses are sufficiently related.

Please note that prosecutors may join related offenses into one case no matter whether they are felonies or misdemeanors.

Prosecutors often make their joinder decision at the beginning of a case before the California arraignment.

Are you being punished twice for the same act in California? Call us for help…

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Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

If you or someone you know believes you are being charged twice for the same criminal act, in violation of Penal Code 654 PC, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7 at 855-LawFirm.


Legal References:

  1. California Penal Code 654 PC. This code section states: “(a) An act or omission that is punishable in different ways by different provisions of law shall be punished under the provision that provides for the longest potential term of imprisonment, but in no case shall the act or omission be punished under more than one provision. An acquittal or conviction and sentence under anyone bars a prosecution for the same act or omission under any other.”

  2. See People v. Logan (1953), 41 Cal.2d 279.

  3. See same.

  4. Neal v. State of California (1960), 55 Cal.2d 11.

  5. U.S. Const. amend. V.

  6. See same.

  7. California Penal Code 687 PC.

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