They say it takes two to tango and that two heads are better than one. However, two or more people planning a crime can lead to a felony conspiracy charge and possible jail time.
Laws against conspiracy stemmed from the need to implicate the “brains” or “masterminds” of organized criminal acts.
In most cases, the leaders of these groups are hidden and detached from the actual crime. However, through various conspiracy laws, capturing crime leaders is now viable.
This article discusses the conspiracy laws of the United States and their purpose. Also, this piece provides information on the punishment and penalties given to people charged with this offense.
Furthermore, this article includes defenses that criminal lawyers use against a conspiracy charge.
If you need access to criminal records, which you might need when building a conspiracy case against someone or making a defense against a charge, visit LookUpInmate.org.
Our website provides an easy way to access and retrieve these documents from different prison and jail facilities in the United States.
What Is Conspiracy?
Under U.S. law, conspiracy happens when two or more people agree to do an illegal act and take the necessary step to accomplish it. The people who agree to commit a crime don’t need to complete the act to be held liable for conspiracy.
For example, two people agreed to rob a store and took the first steps to turn their plans into reality, but they got caught. They could still face conspiracy charges even if they didn’t commit the robbery.
However, if the criminals completed the store robbery and got caught, they could be charged with conspiracy and robbery.
What Is the Federal Conspiracy Law?
A conspiracy can also be described as a partnership in crime. The law concerning this criminal activity is in Title 18 USC § 371, also known as the general conspiracy statute.
The reason for having a conspiracy law is to acknowledge the threat to society when people get together and agree to violate the law.
The conspiracy law also gives investigators reason to pry deeper into organized crime and make the brains of these groups accountable for their criminal intentions.
18 U.S. Code § 371 – Conspiracy to Commit Offense or to Defraud United States
The Federal Conspiracy Law states that if two or more people conspire to either commit any offense, defraud the United States, or be part of an agency that plans on doing those illicit acts against the country, they can be charged with conspiracy.
The crime of conspiracy has two separate clauses: the offense and defraud clauses. According to the federal conspiracy statute, the term “defraud the United States” means the following:
- To cheat the U.S. government out of money or property
- To interfere or obstruct a legitimate government activity
- To wrongfully use a government instrumentality or a government function
Note that the two clauses make it possible for a person to get charged with both the offense clause and the defraud cause.
What Do the Courts Consider in a Conspiracy Case?
There are three main elements or requirements for a conspiracy case. These elements are the agreement, intent and overt-act requirements.
The “Agreement” Requirement
An agreement between two people to commit a crime can be used as evidence for a conspiracy conviction. The courts see agreeing as a “distinct evil” from the planned crime and different from an attempt.
For example, attempted murder is different from murder. However, once the criminal carries out the murder and causes the victim’s death, the two cases merge and become one criminal charge, which is murder.
This kind of merging doesn’t happen in conspiracy cases. Criminals can be charged for agreeing to conspire and the actual crime once they’ve completed it.
Acts of Co-conspirators
In a conspiracy case, every person involved in the planning or in agreement to commit a crime can be found guilty of this charge.
However, aside from getting charged with conspiring to commit a crime, everyone who’s part of the conspiracy can be held liable for any reasonably foreseeable outcomes linked to the planned crime.
For example, three people planned to rob a bank. One agrees to be the lookout, the other is the getaway driver, and the mastermind goes into the bank to commit the robbery.
However, during the robbery, a security guard who tried to thwart the robbery got shot and killed.
Even if the security guard’s death was not part of the original plan, it was a reasonably foreseeable outcome of a bank robbery.
Everyone who’s part of that robbery team can be charged with murder. However, states may have different ways to handle this kind of scenario.
The Element of “Intent”
The mental state of everyone in agreement with the criminal act is essential to consider when dealing with a conspiracy case.
Each part of that “team” must intentionally agree to commit the crime. A mere association with a criminal group planning to violate the law doesn’t automatically make you a co-conspirator.
If one is convicted of conspiracy, the prosecutor must prove through evidence that the defendant showed intent to commit the crime and intent to accomplish it. Without the intent requirement, one can’t be charged with conspiracy.
For example, your friend told you he plans to rob a store. Knowing this information doesn’t make you guilty of conspiracy.
However, suppose you helped the robber in any way to make his criminal goal a success. In that case, you’ll be liable for conspiracy.
The “Overt Act” Requirement
Simply talking about a crime doesn’t make you a criminal unless you’ve taken the initial steps to realize the plan. The same principle works for a conspiracy case.
A group of friends talking about committing a robbery doesn’t make them liable for conspiracy unless one of them took action in furtherance of their criminal plan. This action is called an “overt act,” a crucial requirement for a conspiracy case.
Simple planning and talking about a crime can’t be considered a conspiracy without evidence of overt action.
The overt act requirement prevents the arrest and jailing of people merely discussing acts that are illegal or against government policy.
What Is a Criminal Conspiracy Charge?
Once two or more individuals have the intent and agreement to commit a crime and have done an overt act to accomplish their plan, they can be charged with conspiracy.
Another term used to describe a conspiracy charge is an inchoate offense. This law term describes the felony conspiracy charge given to people who have acted to further their criminal plans.
Even if the actions are just first steps, if they align with their criminal plotting, it may be a punishable offense. Other types of inchoate crimes aside from conspiracy are solicitation and attempt.
Other Examples of Federal Conspiracy Charges
The U.S. code contains many conspiracy charges punishable by fines and imprisonment.
Here are some examples of these criminal offenses:
- Conspiring against rights (18 U.S. Code § 241)
- Conspiracy to defraud the government concerning claims (18 U.S. Code § 286)
- Conspiracy to impede or injure an officer (18 U.S. Code § 372)
- Prisoners of war or enemy aliens (18 U.S. Code § 757)
- Gathering or delivering defense information to aid foreign governments (18 U.S. Code § 794)
- Attempt and conspiracy (21 U.S. Code § 846)
- Conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim, or injure persons or damage property in a foreign country (18 U.S. Code § 956)
Why Would You Be Charged With Conspiracy?
Let’s say you have friends planning to do an unlawful act. If you’re active in that planning, you might be among the people who can be targeted with a conspiracy charge.
The reason for this is that, in most cases, the brains of a conspiracy keep a distance from the crime itself.
Law enforcement can target the brains of a criminal organization by forcing members to testify against each other by filing this criminal offense.
If you’re in this tense situation, you’ll need a criminal defense attorney to defend you from incrimination.
How Do You Get Charged With Conspiracy?
As mentioned above, you can get charged with conspiracy if the elements of this crime are present.
However, law enforcement aims to stop a conspiracy from reaching its fruition. Law enforcement operations are conducted to charge defendants before they carry out their criminal acts.
However, as explained in the preceding sections, elements of conspiracy must be present for the charge to proceed.
These elements include the following:
- One or more defendants involved in the conspiracy have committed the crime.
- Each defendant has a clear motive or intention to participate in the conspiracy.
- At least one of the conspirators has done an overt act or an action that pushes the plan closely into reality.
Penalties for Conspiracy: Jail Time, Prison, and Sentencing Alternatives
In federal conspiracies, offenses of this nature can result in a five-year prison time with fines. Sentences involving state conspiracies vary depending on the laws followed in their jurisdictions.
Common conspiracy crimes at the federal level include money laundering and the manufacture of drugs or weapons. In a conspiracy case, the defendants can be charged with the conspiracy and the crime once committed.
How Many Years for Conspiracy Charges?
Some federal conspiracy charges have a mandatory minimum of five years. However, the harshness of the penalties depends on the underlying crime, which is the object of the conspiracy.
Defendants who will get convicted of a conspiracy charge could do prison time for both the conspiracy and the crime itself if it were carried out.
You Could Go to Jail for a Long Time
People convicted of conspiracy might spend a long time in jail, especially in cases where there’s a mandatory minimum prison sentence. Examples of mandatory minimum for federal conspiracy charges are prison time of 5, 10, or 20 years.
However, there are instances where you can negotiate sentences by cooperating and providing information to law enforcement. You can strike a plea deal with the prosecution to lessen your charge.
What Is the Average Sentence for Conspiracy?
Sentences depend on the type of conspiracy, the severity of the crime, and the current state or federal law. However, there are rulings that one needs to consider when determining the appropriate sentence for a conspiracy charge.
For example, the 18 U.S. Code § 371 details the law on conspiracy to commit an offense or to defraud the United States.
If the planned crime is considered a misdemeanor, the punishment must not exceed the maximum penalty for the crime committed. However, if the crime committed is defrauding the country, the sentence is imprisonment for up to five years.
What Are the Federal Conspiracy Penalties?
Federal penalties for conspiracy crimes are incarceration and fines. The sentence length and fines depend on the severity of the crime and the judge’s discretion.
Here’s a real-life case showing the conspiracy law in action.
Four members of a far-right group called “Oath Keepers” were convicted of seditious conspiracy due to the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021.
Seditious conspiracy carries a statutory maximum of 20 years. The four rioters have yet to receive their sentence. Sentencing guidelines and other factors will still determine their prison term.
A statutory sentence is the maximum prison length for a crime. In contrast, a mandatory sentence is the minimum prison time for a specific crime.
Federal Drug Conspiracy Penalties
In most cases, the severity of a drug conspiracy depends on the amount and value of the controlled substance in question.
The following are penalties in the U.S. code for conspiracy charges involving the following illegal substances:
Penalties involving marijuana in a conspiracy case include the following:
- For 100kg or more: The sentence is a mandatory minimum of five years to a maximum of 40 years of prison time.
- For 1,000kg or more: The sentence is a mandatory minimum of 10 years with a maximum of 40 years in prison.
- For no alleged amount: The sentence can go up to 40 years imprisonment. There’s no mandatory minimum in this case.
Penalties involving heroin in a conspiracy case include the following:
- 100g or more: The sentence is a mandatory minimum of five years to a maximum prison term of 40 years.
- 1kg or more: The sentence is a 10-year mandatory minimum to a maximum prison term of 40 years.
Cocaine (and “Crack” Cocaine)
Penalties involving cocaine in a conspiracy case include the following:
- 500g or more of cocaine, 28g or more of crack cocaine: The sentence is a mandatory minimum of five years to a maximum prison term of 40 years.
- 5kg or more of cocaine, 280g or more of crack cocaine: The sentence is a 10-year mandatory minimum to a lifetime in prison.
Penalties involving methamphetamine in a conspiracy case include the following:
- 5g or more: The sentence is a mandatory minimum of five years to a maximum prison term of 40 years.
- 50g or more: The sentence is a 10-year minimum sentence to a lifetime in prison.
- Less than 5g: The sentence has no mandatory minimum prison sentence. However, there is a 20-year maximum sentence.
Opioids and GHB
The federal government has increased the enforcement of crimes involving opioids and gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), also known as the “date rape drug.”
Here are the penalties for conspiracies involving these drugs:
- There are no mandatory minimum sentences for cases involving conspiracies. However, the maximum sentence is 20 years.
- An enhanced penalty applies if the drug conspiracy causes the death of someone or serious injury.
- A enhanced penalty also applies to individuals with prior felony convictions for a drug-related offense.
What Is the Punishment for a Class H Felony in the U.S.?
The penalty for class H felonies depends on the state. For example, in North Carolina, class H felonies involve crimes such as assaulting someone with strangulation, possessing stolen goods, and breaking or entering buildings with felonious intent.
The state punishes class H felonies with a maximum of 39 months in prison. Even if the crimes are lower in class, a group agreeing to commit a crime can still be charged with conspiracy.
How to Prove Conspiracy
Let’s say you’re being charged with conspiracy. The state or federal prosecutor will do the following to prove you’re part of this criminal act.
- The prosecutor will make a connection between you and your alleged co-conspirators. For a conspiracy to take place, it needs two or more people in agreement to commit a crime.
- The prosecutor will establish that you have an intent similar to your co-conspirators. The intent to commit a crime must be present for a conspiracy charge to progress in court.
- The prosecutor will provide evidence of an overt act by at least one of the conspirators to implicate everyone in the charge.
In most states, simply talking about doing a crime isn’t enough for a conviction. The prosecutor must show that the defendants did specific actions like preparing a getaway car for a conspiracy conviction to be possible.
If you’re in this situation, you must seek the help of a criminal defense lawyer. Criminal law experts can help you navigate through the complexities of a conspiracy charge.
Examples of Conspiracy Crimes
The following are some examples of conspiracy crimes to help you understand how the courts handle these offenses.
Conspiracy to Commit Robbery
Three close friends met in a bar to discuss robbing a grocery store down the road. The meeting ended with everyone verbally agreeing to commit the crime on a given date.
The following day, one of the conspirators bought the tools precisely needed for the crime. However, the police caught the conspirators before they could commit the robbery because the bartender heard their plan and alerted law enforcement.
In states like Virginia, conspiracy is a different charge from robbery. So, in the case stated above, the elements of conspiracy are present. The group agreed to and intended to commit the crime. Furthermore, one of the conspirators has overtly acted by purchasing the tools needed for the crime.
However, in the example provided, the crime was thwarted and didn’t happen because of the arrest. In this case, the conspirators can be charged with conspiracy and attempted robbery.
Federal Conspiracy Drug Charges
Three close friends planned to get into the drug trafficking business in their community. The group contacted a dealer in their area and got their first batch of controlled substances.
Afterward, the three friends sold their stash, paid the dealer their due, and divided among themselves the money they earned. A few days later, an entrapment was conducted, and the three friends were arrested.
In this scenario, the three friends are liable for drug conspiracy because of the conspiracy charges that can be used by federal law enforcement.
Federal law states that there must be an agreement between two or more people to violate a federal drug law for a drug conspiracy case.
Also, each individual knew what they were getting into and still joined the conspiracy.
Drug conspiracy is a broad term with four different types:
- Manufacturing a controlled substance
- Importing a controlled substance
- Distributing a controlled substance
- Possessing a controlled substance with the intent to distribute it
Suppose a group of individuals plans to violate one or all of these drug conspiracy types. In that case, they can be charged with a drug conspiracy charge.
Why Is Conspiracy Such an Easy Charge for the Government?
There are a few reasons why conspiracy is an easy charge for the government.
- Many federal statutes expressly prohibit conspiracies in the United States. As a result, there are many instances where prosecutors can charge conspiracy.
- A conspiracy charge is easier to pursue than murder or robbery, which requires a completed act.
A murder charge can only happen if someone is murdered. On the other hand, a conspiracy to commit murder doesn’t need an actual murder to hold the planners of the act liable.
However, simply talking about a crime isn’t a basis for conspiracy unless someone takes the first steps toward committing the unlawful act.
What Rights Do You Have if the Feds Charged You With Conspiracy?
People arrested for conspiracy still have the following rights, which they can invoke while planning a defense with their lawyers.
- The right to remain silent and have an attorney during police questioning or when invoking the Fifth Amendment
- The right to due process and a fair trial
- The right to confront a witness testifying against you
- The right to call on witnesses on your behalf
However, law enforcement may offer deals like voluntarily giving up information on co-conspirators in exchange for a favorable plea deal.
Defenses to Conspiracy
There are several ways to build a defense against conspiracy charges. One can use the following defense examples when implicated in this criminal charge.
Remember that these defenses can only be used through the help of sound legal advice from competent criminal defense lawyers.
There Was No Agreement
One defense against a conspiracy charge is to establish that the defendant didn’t agree to the planning of the crime or there was no agreement at all. The defense must provide reasonable doubts about the existence of an agreement.
However, one factor that can shatter this defense is out-of-court statements from co-conspirators implicating other group members. Typically, hearsay evidence doesn’t stand well in court. However, these statements are allowed in conspiracy cases and can be the basis of prosecution.
The court allowed these statements because co-conspirators tend to talk on each other’s behalf.
There Was No Overt Act
An overt act separates casually expressing one’s thoughts from committing a conspiracy. Most states require that one or more persons have committed acts in furtherance of the planned crime.
If there’s no overt act, one can build a defense that the statements said during the so-called “planning phase” were simply expressions.
The Defendant Withdrew From the Conspiracy
Another defense one can take is showing proof of withdrawing from the conspiracy. However, some cases require specific actions, like taking steps to notify co-conspirators of one’s withdrawal from the plot or reporting to the police the planned criminal act.
Legal Defenses Against Drug Conspiracy Charges
Despite the many options the government could take to pursue a drug conspiracy charge, there are still defenses a defendant can use to prevent a conviction. The following are examples of these legal defenses.
Illegally Obtained Evidence
The first legal defense points out that the evidence used against the defendant was illegally obtained. Examples of unlawfully obtained evidence are items confiscated without a search warrant or during an entrapment.
Lack of Intent or Knowledge of Conspiracy
The second defense is providing evidence of one’s lack of intent or knowledge of the planning of the crime. One can’t be implicated in a conspiracy case without the intention to commit a crime.
Withdrawal From the Conspiracy
The last evidence one can use is proof of one’s withdrawal from the conspiracy. A way to show withdrawal from a conspiracy is by cooperating with law enforcement in providing useful information that can increase the likelihood of conviction of the co-conspirator, especially the mastermind.
Getting Legal Help
The legal process involved in a conspiracy charge can be stressful and even dangerous.
People who were once friends or part of an organization are being implicated in a crime they plan to commit. It’s not uncommon for co-conspirators to speak out against their previous “friends” to have a good plea deal.
If you’re facing conspiracy or have a loved one being charged with this criminal case, it’s best to get sound legal advice. You can do so by contacting a competent law firm that specializes in conspiracy cases. Most of the time, these firms have free consultations and case evaluation sessions to help you.
Furthermore, establishing good attorney-client relationships can help build a case because the information is more freely exchanged between the defendant and their lawyer.
Finally, having the necessary documents ready for building a defense against conspiracy charges is crucial, especially if the defendant has a criminal record.
You can get these documents by visiting LookUpInmate.org. Our website gives access to inmate records from over 7,000 prison and jail facilities in the United States.
1. Federal Conspiracy Law https://www.fletc.gov/audio/federal-conspiracy-law-mp3 2. Conspiracy to Commit a Crime & Legal Defenses https://www.justia.com/criminal/offenses/inchoate-crimes/conspiracy/ 3. 923. 18 U.S.C. § 371—Conspiracy to Defraud the United States https://www.justice.gov/archives/jm/criminal-resource-manual-923-18-usc-371-conspiracy-defraud-us 4. Inchoate offense https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/inchoate_offense 5. 18 U.S. Code § 371 – Conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud United States https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/371 6. Four Oath Keepers Found Guilty of Seditious Conspiracy Related to U.S. Capitol Breach https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/four-oath-keepers-found-guilty-seditious-conspiracy-related-us-capitol-breach 7. North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission Classification of a Sample of Offenses https://www.nccourts.gov/assets/documents/publications/Sample-list-2017.pdf 8. The Right to Silence for Criminal Suspects Under the Law https://www.justia.com/criminal/procedure/miranda-rights/right-to-silence/ 9. Due Process of Law https://law.justia.com/constitution/us/amendment-14/04-due-process-of-law.html 10. Right to confront witness https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/right_to_confront_witness