What Does “Stacking Charges” Mean in a Criminal Case?

stacking criminal charges

If you're facing multiple charges for one event, you're dealing with what lawyers call "stacking charges."


Federal prosecutors often use this approach to strengthen their case. While this might seem scary, it's essential to know you have options.


This article explains what "stacking charges" means, what you could be up against, and how a skilled lawyer from Kolsrud Law Offices can help you fight for the best possible outcome.

stacking charges

Understanding "Stacking Charges" in Federal Law

"Stacking charges" refers to prosecutors filing multiple, often similar, charges against a defendant for a single criminal act or series of closely related acts.


In federal cases, this is facilitated by the broad range of federal statutes that criminalize various forms of conduct.


While the Arizona Revised Statutes may not directly apply to federal crimes, the U.S. Code and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure govern these cases.


The list below outlines some of the federal charges that are often stacked together. Understanding these combinations can help you grasp the severity of your situation and why having an experienced federal criminal defense attorney on your side is crucial.

Federal Drug Charges

  1. Possession of a Controlled Substance with Intent to Distribute (21 U.S.C. § 841)
  2. Conspiracy to Distribute a Controlled Substance (21 U.S.C. § 846)
  3. Money Laundering Related to Drug Trafficking (18 U.S.C. § 1956)

Fraud-Related Charges

  1. Wire Fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1343)
  2. Mail Fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1341)
  3. Identity Theft (18 U.S.C. § 1028)
  4. Bank Fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1344)

Weapons and Firearms Charges

  1. Possession of a Firearm by a Convicted Felon (18 U.S.C. § 922(g))
  2. Carrying a Firearm in Furtherance of a Drug Trafficking Crime (18 U.S.C. § 924(c))
  3. Illegal Sale or Manufacture of Firearms (18 U.S.C. § 922(a))

White-Collar Crimes

  1. Securities Fraud (15 U.S.C. §§ 78j, 78ff)
  2. Tax Evasion (26 U.S.C. § 7201)
  3. Insider Trading (15 U.S.C. §§ 78j, 78ff)
  4. Embezzlement (18 U.S.C. § 641)

Human Trafficking and Exploitation

  1. Sex Trafficking (18 U.S.C. § 1591)
  2. Forced Labor (18 U.S.C. § 1589)
  3. Transportation for Illegal Sexual Activity (18 U.S.C. § 2421)

Racketeering and Organized Crime

  1. Racketeering (18 U.S.C. § 1962)
  2. Conspiracy to Commit Racketeering (18 U.S.C. § 1962(d))
  3. Extortion (18 U.S.C. § 1951)

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Implications for Federal Cases in Arizona

Though federal law is consistent across all states, each federal judicial district may have its own local rules and tendencies, including the District of Arizona.


Here, federal prosecutors may opt for stacking charges as part of a strategy to secure a conviction and/or to compel a defendant to enter into a plea agreement.

federal sentencing guidelines

Federal Sentencing Guidelines and Stacked Charges

Federal Sentencing Guidelines play a significant role in the outcome of federal criminal cases, especially when charges are stacked.


Unlike Arizona state guidelines, federal sentencing can become complex due to "relevant conduct" and other factors that judges can consider.


The effect of multiple charges on sentencing can often be complicated which emphasizes the importance of having a skilled attorney from Kolsrud Law Offices

Hypothetical Scenario: Stacked Charges in a Federal Drug Case


John is arrested by federal agents after being caught in possession of 5 kilograms of cocaine. He was also found carrying a loaded firearm during the arrest. The agents have been tracking him as part of a larger investigation into a drug trafficking organization. To build a strong case, the federal prosecutors decided to "stack" multiple charges against John.


  1. Possession of a Controlled Substance with Intent to Distribute (21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1))
  2. Conspiracy to Distribute a Controlled Substance (21 U.S.C. § 846)
  3. Carrying a Firearm in Furtherance of a Drug Trafficking Crime (18 U.S.C. § 924(c))


  1. Increased Penalties: Each of these charges carries its own set of penalties. If convicted on all counts, John may face multiple years in federal prison, hefty fines, or both. 
  2. Plea Bargain Pressure: With multiple charges against him, John is under significant pressure to accept a plea deal, where he may plead guilty to one or two charges in exchange for the dismissal of the others. 
  3. Complex Sentencing: Federal Sentencing Guidelines allow judges to consider various factors, including "relevant conduct," when determining sentences. Stacked charges could complicate this even further, potentially leading to consecutive sentences. 
  4. Legal Costs: The more charges John faces, the more complicated and prolonged his legal defense will be, likely increasing his legal costs. 
  5. Strategic Defense: An experienced federal criminal defense attorney must evaluate the stacked charges carefully, challenge the evidence where possible, and negotiate with the prosecution to either drop or reduce some of the charges. 


In this scenario, stacking charges serves as a prosecutorial strategy to put maximum pressure on John, both to secure a conviction and to encourage a plea agreement. The consequences are severe, emphasizing the need for expert legal defense when facing such a situation.

plea deal

Prosecutorial Tactics in Stacking Federal Charges

Federal prosecutors have extensive discretion in filing charges, including the ability to stack charges.


This strategy can be a leverage point to encourage a plea deal, where some charges might be dropped in exchange for a plea on others. It's a tactic that ups the ante, so to speak, and makes the stakes higher for the defendant.


According to the United States Sentencing Commission, in Fiscal Year 2019, almost 97% of all federal criminal cases were resolved through a plea agreement, often involving negotiating stacked charges.

Defending Against Stacked Charges in Federal Cases

While facing stacked charges in a federal case is undoubtedly a stressful situation, it's crucial to remember that all is not lost.


The US criminal justice system operates under the belief that every individual is innocent until proven guilty. A skilled federal criminal defense attorney can guide you when facing several charges. 


First, your legal defense can work diligently to understand the specifics of your case—scrutinizing the evidence, examining witness statements, and identifying any procedural errors that may have occurred during your arrest or the investigation.


This thorough examination often uncovers opportunities to challenge the validity of some, if not all, of the charges stacked against you.


Your attorney can also question the prosecutor's motives for stacking charges in the first place. Is the evidence strong enough to support multiple felony or misdemeanor charges, or is the prosecution merely trying to paint a bad picture, hoping to pressure you into a plea deal?


A seasoned attorney can spot these tactics and push back accordingly, advocating for the reduction or complete dismissal of some charges.



Negotiation is another powerful defense tool. Prosecutors are often more willing to negotiate when faced with a strong defense case. A well-crafted legal strategy may allow your attorney to negotiate favorable terms, such as dropping certain charges or reducing them to lesser offenses. This process can significantly decrease the penalties you might face if convicted,



Finally, if your case goes to trial, a masterful legal defense can make all the difference. A compelling courtroom presentation can cast doubt on the prosecution’s case, sway the jury in your favor, and potentially lead to an acquittal on some or all charges.


So, while the phrase "stacking charges" might sound overwhelming and defeating, remember that expert legal assistance can dramatically alter the result.

It's not just about facing the charges; it's about actively fighting them, challenging the prosecution at every turn, and preserving your freedom.


Kolsrud Law Offices offers a free consultation to discuss your case, and you can reach them at 480-680-9769.

An award-winning criminal defense attorney Since 2006

Why Choose Josh Kolsrud

With over 100 trials to his name, and years of experience as a state and federal prosecutor, Josh understands the law, the legal process, and your rights. Josh is also committed to representing every client with utmost integrity and dedication



Josh has prosecuted major crimes on the state and federal level, led a successful anti-human sex trafficking operation that saved lives, and argued before countless juries and justices for his clients



Josh is an expert in both Arizona and federal criminal law, and is ready to put that expertise to work for you.



As a prosecutor, Josh saw far too many defendants lose their livelihood due to poor representation. Josh will always give every client his complete attention and effort

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