If you’re an ordinary, educated, English-speaking person you probably think you know what “duplicitous” means. You think it means deceitful or deceptive, as in, “I ain’t givin’ money to no duplicitous bum who calls me during dinner and says he’s with the police.”
If so, you’re only partly right. That is the common everyday meaning, but there is another meaning which is peculiar to the world of law and which you would never run into unless you made a habit of reading court decisions.
One that I read recently, titled The People v. Jose Casiano Alonzo, came from the state’s highest court. It concerned an indictment of the aforementioned Mr. Alonzo for allegedly groping two women. (The decision did not say where this occurred.)
I’ll spare you the particulars, but basically Mr. Alonzo was charged with two counts of sexual abuse against each woman for having groped two different body parts of each. Thus four counts in total.
The court ruled that the indictment was “multiplicitous,” which is another novelty for the ordinary speaker of English, but in so doing, helpfully explained the legal difference: “An indictment is duplicitous when a single count charges more than one offense … It is multiplicitous when a single offense is charged in more than one count.”
No, I wanted to reply, an indictment is duplicitous when it’s deceitful or deceptive, when it calls me during dinner and asks me to contribute to a police charitable fund.
My desk dictionary says I’m right. But Black’s Law Dictionary reveals there’s more to the word than the layman suspected. In the arcane world of the law, duplicitous means what the Court of Appeals said. I would have preferred “duplicative” in that situation, but maybe that’s why I’m not an appeals judge.
I would say an indictment is multiplicitous when it reproduces itself like an amoeba and fills a Petri dish, or a court clerk’s office, overnight.
Black’s Law Dictionary actually doesn’t have multiplicitous, but it has multiplicity, which it says involves “a variety of matters or particulars.”
That doesn’t sound to me quite as precise as the Court of Appeals would have it, but one of the advantages of a being a high court is that you can define your own words.
What’s wrong with an indictment being duplicative, or “duplicitous”?
“It may undermine the requirement of jury unanimity,” the court wrote, “for if jurors are considering separate crimes in a single count, some may find the defendant guilty of one, and some of the other.”
As for the other, “If an indictment is multiplicitous it creates the risk that a defendant will be punished for, or stigmatized with a conviction of, more crimes than he actually committed.”
In the case of Mr. Alonzo, the prosecution argued it would have been duplicitous (legal meaning) to include the groping of different body parts in one count.
The court said, on the contrary, it was multiplicitous to separate the body parts into different counts. Thus Mr. Alonzo now stands charged with two offenses, not four, and we all stand enlightened.
Also on the language front we have the actress Melissa Leo using what we delicately call the f-word during her Academy Awards speech. “There is a great deal of the English language that is in my vernacular,” she offered later. So I guess she has pretty big vernacular.
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