One of the most misunderstood crimes in our system is “Conspiracy.” People have a general idea of what it is; but when it comes to the law, you need a full understanding of what a prosecutor needs to prove to convict a defendant of the crime.
Each state has its own statutes criminalizing conspiracies. In this blog post, we are going to explain the law as it relates to the crime of conspiracy under federal law. We at Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law, provide this information in our continuing efforts to ensure that everyone in our community can use our website, and us, as a resource for any questions they may have about criminal law. We proudly represent Tampa and St. Petersburg area residents who facing indictment and prosecution for crimes in both state and federal court. If you need help with a criminal case, contact us for a free consultation.
What Is Conspiracy Under Federal Law?
The federal statute criminalizing the general crime of conspiracy is found at 18 U.S.C. § 371. The statute forbids two or more people from conspiring to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the US government or any agency of the US government “in any manner or for any purpose[.]” But the federal statute requires proof that at least one of the persons does some act “to effect the object of the conspiracy.”
In plainer language, the federal crime of conspiracy is committed when two or more people agree to commit an unlawful act involving the US or a US agency, AND one of the persons does some overt act toward accomplishing the crime that was agreed to.
KEY POINT: An agreement to commit a crime is itself a crime as soon as one of the persons who agreed does some outward act to further the crime, even if the planned crime is never committed.
For example, let’s say Mr. Adams and Ms. Eve agree to submit an inflated bill for services rendered to the Medicare program. Mr. Adams types up a fake bill on his computer. The two people never submit the fake bill. But the crime of conspiring to defraud the US has been completed and they may be prosecuted. By typing up the fake bill, Mr. Adams performed an overt act in furtherance of the crime the two of them agreed to commit.
Both Mr. Adams and Ms. Eve are subject to federal indictment and prosecution and would face up to 5 years in federal prison and up to a $250,000 fine under 18 U.S.C. § 371.
Conspiracies to Commit Specific Federal Crimes
Other federal conspiracy crimes carry much more severe sentences. Under other federal statutes, certain conspiracies can result in the same sentence being imposed for the conspiracy crime as for the underlying crime the conspirators intended to commit.
- Conspiracy to commit traffic in marijuana — from 5 to 40 years in federal prison
- Conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism (e.g., maiming) — up to 35 years in prison
- Conspiracy to commit racketeering — up to 30 years in federal prison
Remember, these are the penalties only for conspiring to do the crime, even without ever committing the planned crime.
Penalty for Underlying Crime Added to Conspiracy Penalty – Not Double Jeopardy
The crime of conspiring to commit a fraud or a bank robbery is a separate offense from the fraud or bank robbery. If two or more people walk inside a bank and rob it, and another sits in the getaway car outside to help them escape, all three are guilty of robbery. All three are also guilty of conspiring to rob the bank. Each of them could be prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to a term of imprisonment for the conspiracy and another term of imprisonment for the robbery. The two crimes are different from one another and do not constitute double jeopardy nor do the offenses merge into a single crime as would a charge of attempted robbery and robbery. Once the robbery is completed, the attempt is no longer a separate offense. Not true with conspiracy. Conspiracy remains a separate crime.
Co-conspirators Are Criminally Liable for Acts of Other Co-conspirators
The federal law embraces the principle that each act of one conspirator is legally attributable to all other co-conspirators. The theory is essentially an enforcement of the Three Musketeers’ mantra, “All for one and one for all.” If you conspire with someone to extort money from a federal officeholder and your co-conspirator beat the extortion victim to death during a payoff-gone-bad while you are miles away, you are criminally liable for murder as well as for the conspiracy offense.
Importantly, guilt can be established even if the defendant only knew a small part of the conspiracy. The defendant need not know all the conspirators or understand each participant’s role to be convicted.
Statements of One Conspirator Are Admissible as Evidence Against Other Conspirators at Trial
Just as the acts of one conspirator are legally attributable to other co-conspirators, so too are the statements made in furtherance of the conspiracy by one conspirator admissible in court against the other conspirators. This is an especially powerful tool for federal prosecutors. It means that even the quietest, most cautious, and least talkative member of the conspiracy can be convicted by the prosecutor by putting into evidence the statements made by a loose-lipped co-conspirator during the conspiracy.
Defenses to Federal Conspiracy Charges
An experienced federal criminal defense lawyer is an absolute necessity for anyone who is facing a federal conspiracy indictment. Conspiracy is one of the easiest crimes for Assistant U.S. Attorneys to prosecute. But the law provides several very strong defenses that a skilled criminal defense lawyer can assert to challenge the government’s evidence. Here are a few of the most powerful defenses:
- Defendant Withdrew from the Conspiracy – The defendant renounced the conspiracy, communicated his withdrawal from the scheme to the other conspirators, and then stopped cooperating with them.
- No Intent or Mere Presence — The defendant never expressed agreement with or acquiescence in the conspiracy. The defendant’s mere presence near conspirators without an affirmative act or agreement is insufficient to prove guilt.
- Duress — The defendant’s intentional participation in a conspiracy may be excused or at least mitigated if the defense can present evidence that threats or reasonable fear of violence compelled their cooperation with the conspiracy.
- Entrapment — Evidence that the defendant entered the conspiracy only after being enticed and baited by government agents will defeat a conspiracy charge if the defendant has no prior record of a similar offense, and no propensity to act in an alleged manner.
Related Reading> Federal Sentencing Calculations
Federal Conspiracy Charges Require an Expert Criminal Defense
If you are facing a federal indictment alleging violation of anti-conspiracy laws, contact experienced federal criminal defense attorneys near you immediately. In Tampa and St. Petersburg, the Stechschulte Nell Law Firm has the valuable federal court experience that you need to protect yourself from being convicted. Federal courts are extremely serious places. Get serious federal defense lawyers.
Call Stechschulte Nell to defend your case today; 813-280-1244.