What is an Allen Charge?

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Scales of JusticeOrigin of the Allen Charge

An Allen Charge might not be something you’ve heard about before unless you spend a lot of time in the courtroom or you’ve served on a jury. An Allen Charge is issued by a judge when juries deadlock and can’t reach a verdict. It’s intended to avoid a mistrial. Some states prohibit Allen charges, because they deem them coercive, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld their use in Allen v. U.S., 164 U.S. 492 (1896).

During trials, jurors listen to the prosecution and defense share their evidence and refute the evidence the other side has presented. The jury then deliberates about that information and determines if the defendant should be prosecuted or acquitted. It’s also possible for trials to end in a mistrial, which occurs when a jury cannot reach a conclusive agreement.

Since a mistrial could allow the defendant to go free, even though he or she might have committed a crime, judges sometimes use an Allen Charge to reduce the risk of a mistrial.

The Allen Charge was so named because it came as the result of the Supreme Court case Allen vs. the United States that occurred during the late 1800s.

The Allen case reached the Supreme Court after an Alabama state court was deadlocked and unable to convict Mr. Allen, which meant he could not be sentenced to prison. Ultimately, the Court decided that judges would be allowed to provide extra time to juries to allow for a decision and made it possible for the majority to persuade the minority into changing their minds about a ruling.

The result of an Allen Charge was based on a federal ruling, but more than 20 states have followed suit and created similar policies in their courts.

What’s the Benefit of an Allen Charge?

Aside from concerns about someone potentially guilty going free, the court system also sees using an Allen Charge as a way to avoid inefficiency. Mistrials cost the system thousands of dollars and waste a lot of time.

However, this doesn’t mean the use of an Allen Charge is always a positive thing.

The American Bar Association has evaluated data from cases that included Allen Charges and found that juries asked to deliberate longer were more likely to return with a conviction. Jurors who believe a person to be guilty seldom change their mind and risk putting a guilty criminal back on the streets. They do tend to change their minds in favor of a conviction though.

Allen Charges are almost always more beneficial for the prosecution.

If you’d like to learn more about the Allen Charge, check out this opinion piece from the American Bar Association.

How Does a Judge Present an Allen Charge to the Jury?

When judges give Allen Charges, they typically spend time explaining why they are providing more time to the jury and reminding them how important it is for them to reach a decision. The judge might explain how expensive it is to try a case and how much time, effort and emotion went into getting the case to the point it has reached.

Judges usually tend to remind jurors that they are qualified to make their decision and that any future jury will neither be more nor less qualified than those assembled. This might be because sometimes jurors are reluctant to share their opinion and are uncomfortable having the responsibility of deciding a person’s fate.

Finally, the judge might encourage those with the minority opinion to reconsider how reasonable their doubt is considering other jurors did not feel the same way. He or she wants jurors to think critically about how they came to their conclusion and assess why that conclusion differs so drastically when everyone saw and heard the same information. There might be a reminder to jurors not to abandon true beliefs, but to make sure those beliefs are carefully analyzed.

An Allen Charge provides the jury with an unlimited amount of time to examine evidence further and speak about the case, but many people believe it is a way to force jury members into making a decision even if they are unable to do so in good conscience. It avoids mistrials, but it can also result in jurors who feel pressured into changing their minds.

If you have questions about Allen Charges, have been accused of a crime or you need assistance with a legal issue, contact Gary Tabakman at (713) 331-9457.