You’re caught with a few pills for which you don’t have a prescription. You expect to be charged with possession. You’re more than a bit shocked — and alarmed — to find yourself facing an array of charges, including the intent to distribute, which could potentially add up to a lengthy prison sentence.

What’s happening? It’s called overcharging. It’s a common tactic used by prosecutors, and it’s used to intimidate defendants into taking a plea deal as quickly as possible.

Typically there are two different methods of overcharging. One involves using technicalities to charge you for multiple crimes related to a single offense. For example, that might mean slapping you with a separate possession charge for each pill in your pocket and adding a charge for having drug paraphernalia because they were in a baggie. Other times, overcharging means elevating the charge from a low-level offense (like possession) to a high-level one (like distribution) that carries stiffer penalties. Sometimes, prosecutors do a mix of both.

Then they offer a plea deal. Most defendants are scared out of their wits by that point and take the deal because it’s a sure bet and whatever penalty it entails looks a lot better than what they’re facing otherwise. That goes down as a win in a prosecutor’s record.

Here’s the secret about overcharging: Prosecutors don’t get away with it that easily when you have an experienced defense attorney on your side. One of the ways that a criminal defense attorney can protect your rights is by negotiating the charges down to something reasonable for the circumstances.