Federal Conspiracy Charges
What is Criminal Conspiracy?
A conspiracy is an agreement made between two or more people to commit a criminal act. Criminal offenses such as terrorism, drug trafficking, gang and mafia crimes, and even corruption among corporate executives often include conspiracy charges as well. Federal conspiracy laws operate under the theory that a “scheme” among a group of individuals is equally reprehensible to the actual criminal offenses the scheme includes.
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This is based on the belief that a “collective criminal agreement,” is potentially a larger threat to the public than individuals committing criminal acts because the collective crime is more likely to succeed. Based on these beliefs, the federal government offers significant punishment for those convicted of conspiracy.
As discussed further on, there is often a requirement of an overt act that prevents people from being charged with conspiracy for merely talking about a criminal offense. As an example, suppose you and three of your buddies are at a bar, drinking and playing pool. As the night goes on and the alcohol flows, you all begin talking about how you would rob a bank together.
In truth, none of you have any intention of robbing a bank, and in the cold light of day, there is no sort of action by any of you to further the crime of robbing a bank. In this instance, you could not be charged with conspiracy. In short, there was no intent on the part of any of you to actually rob a bank.
Changing Conspiracy Laws
All of the laws that address criminal conspiracy have a common element—an agreement between two or more persons. In other words, a single person cannot be guilty of conspiracy. Many years ago, a husband and wife who committed conspiracy would not be charged, because they were essentially believed to be “one person.”
Since the act of conspiracy requires at least two people, then for a husband and wife, a third party would be necessary. This is no longer true today; a husband and wife can be charged with conspiracy (provided all other elements are present) without a third party. Similarly, a corporation could not be charged with conspiracy, but today a corporation can be charged with conspiracy as an “entity.”
In fact, criminal acts of officers, employees, and agents can result in criminal liability for a corporation. It is also true, under current federal conspiracy laws, that an officer who is undercover, or a person working as an informant to law enforcement is not considered one of the necessary parties for a conspiracy. Finally, it is also important to note that if a co-conspirator is acquitted, this is not considered a defense for the other conspirators so long as the necessary evidence is present to convict.
What is Wharton’s Rule?
There is a rule known as the Wharton’s Rule that limits prosecution for the crime of conspiracy when the number of people necessary to commit the underlying criminal offense equals the number of conspirators. This rule comes into play only when it would be impossible to commit the underlying offense without cooperation from another conspirator. In laymen’s terms, two people cannot be prosecuted for conspiracy to commit a certain offense if the offense in question could only be committed by at least two people.
What is Necessary for Charges of Conspiracy to Be Brought?
If you have been charged with conspiracy, then the government believes you made an agreement with one or more other persons to commit a criminal act. Interestingly, there is actually no requirement for the government to prove that the underlying criminal act actually occurred, just that you made an agreement to commit the act.
The exception to this includes the crimes of bribery and deprivation of honest services; the government must also prove that at least one of the individuals accused took a “substantial” step toward committing the offense. Because of this, the penalties for conspiracy can be as stringent as the penalties for the underlying criminal offense.
Generally speaking, the government must only prove that you and one or more other persons entered into an agreement to violate criminal federal law and that you all did so knowingly and purposefully. As noted, in certain cases, the government is also required to prove that at least one defendant committed an act in furtherance of the conspiracy (known as an “overact”). Merely being present or associating with others who are involved in the crime of conspiracy does not mean you are guilty of the crime. There must be direct or indirect evidence or circumstantial evidence that proves—or at least infers—that you willingly engaged in a conspiracy.
Inferring you were a part of the conspiracy requires connecting the dots between your relationship with the other conspirators, evidence of your appearance at transactions and negotiations that further the conspiracy, and whether third parties believed you were mutually represented as a part of the conspiracy.
Exception Regarding Controlled Substance Cases
Each federal circuit court of appeal has acknowledged an exception to the conspiracy laws. If a buyer agrees to purchase a relatively small amount of drugs—and the seller agrees to provide those drugs, this is not considered an agreement that rises to the level of conspiracy. While there is some difference of opinion among the courts for this exception, one claim is there is no necessary agreement, i. e., “the seller’s purpose is to sell, the buyer’s purpose is to buy.” Another opinion given is that the courts want to avoid sweeping one-time buyer-sellers into a large-scale trafficking operation, although the exception in this case rarely extends beyond a one-time small transaction.
Federal Penalties for a Criminal Conspiracy Conviction
The Federal statute that governs criminal conspiracy is 18 U.S.C. Section 371—U.S. Code—Unannotated Title 18 Crimes and Criminal Procedures Section 371. The crime of conspiracy is punishable by up to five years in prison, plus fines. If the object of the conspiracy was a misdemeanor, rather than a felony (i.e., you conspired to shoplift), then the penalties are significantly lower. The sentence for a federal conspiracy conviction may not exceed the maximum penalty for the underlying criminal misdemeanor offense.
In the state of Pennsylvania, when you are charged with conspiracy along with the underlying criminal act, the two charges do not merge for the purpose of sentencing. This means you would be subject to a double penalty. Although a judge can run the sentences concurrently, there is no prohibition against running the sentences consecutively. As you can see, the crime of conspiracy is very serious, with very serious penalties.
Defenses to Criminal Conspiracy
While your defense for criminal conspiracy charges will depend on the specific circumstances, below you will see some of the more common defenses used for those charged with conspiracy.
- The conspiracy was abandoned—Perhaps you and several others did discuss a plan to commit a criminal act and had every intention of following through. Then, for whatever reason, you all decided against committing the criminal offense. A lengthy period of time has gone by since you first discussed committing the crime, therefore, it is reasonable to assume the conspiracy was abandoned.
- You had no specific intent to commit the underlying criminal offense—Conspiracy is a crime that requires specific intent. If you, or others involved, had no actual intent, then there may have been no actual criminal plan in place and the conspiracy charge might be dropped.
- You believed you were acting legally—this defense would be a difficult one to employ but could possibly be useful if the underlying criminal act you have been charged with is rather obscure.
- You clearly communicated you wanted nothing more to do with those planning the criminal offense—In other words, you renounced the criminal “enterprise,” even though you were initially involved in the conspiracy. You may have even taken specific steps to thwart the plan of the others once you decided you did not want to participate or be involved in any way. In this case, you will have to prove that you explicitly and purposefully withdrew from participation in the underlying crime and that your co-conspirators clearly understood you were no longer a part of the conspiracy or the underlying offense.
- Actual innocence—you never agreed to participate in the crime with the other co-conspirators. The court must have clear evidence that you and the others intended to carry out the underlying criminal offense. Further, simply having a conversation about a crime is not a criminal offense if you can prove you believed the conversation was hypothetical.
- There was no act furthering the underlying crime by you or your co–conspirators—In most cases, some action must be taken by one or more of the co-conspirators in furtherance of the underlying criminal offense in order to make conspiracy charges stick. If you and your co-conspirators were planning a robbery, and it can be clearly shown that you spent considerable time learning how to pick locks, then this act might qualify as one that furthered the underlying crime. If no such act exists, your attorney could potentially have the conspiracy charges against you dropped.
It is extremely important to have a criminal defense attorney who is experienced in federal conspiracy charges if you are charged with the crime. Federal prosecutions are different than state prosecutions, and you need to ensure that your rights and your future are properly protected.
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