In criminal law, a conspiracy is when at least two people plan to commit one or more unlawful actions, and then at least one member of the conspiracy takes an action as part of that plan.
A conspiracy charge needs four essential elements. The conspiracy must involve at least two people, as one person cannot form a conspiracy. There must be an agreement between the conspirators, although this doesn’t need to be a written agreement. The conspirators must either plan to accomplish an illegal goal, or accomplish a legal goal through illegal means. One or more conspirators must take some action to accomplish the goal of the conspiracy.
One thing that’s important to realize about conspiracies is that the defendants can be guilty of conspiracy even if they haven’t done anything illegal, although this can make it more difficult for the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was a conspiracy in place.
Let’s say that three people form a conspiracy to rob an armored car. If one member of the group purchases a handgun to use in the crime, or follows the armored car to analyze its route, every member of the group could already be charged and convicted with conspiracy to commit armed robbery. They would be able to defend themselves by stating that there was no conspiracy, and without proof of one, the prosecution would have no case. After all, purchasing a handgun or driving in the same direction as an armored car aren’t illegal. However, if the prosecution had a recording of the three people discussing their plans for the crime, then it’s likely that the judge or jury would convict the group of conspiracy.
Conspiracy is separate from the actual crime itself. In the example above, if the group actual went through with the armed robbery and were apprehended, they would be charged with both armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery. This often results in a more severe punishment, and a conviction for a conspiracy to commit a felony may have a mandatory minimum sentence.
There is a difference between simply having knowledge of a crime and being a co-conspirator. If the group of conspirators above told a friend about their armed robbery plans, that doesn’t make the friend part of the conspiracy, unless this friend also helped out in some way, such as driving the getaway car for them. It’s the responsibility of the prosecution to prove that there was some sort of agreement between every conspirator beyond a reasonable doubt.
One way that a conspiracy charge can benefit the prosecution is by relieving them of the need to prove the roles each member of the group had in a crime. For example, in a murder case, the prosecution can charge every member of a conspiracy with conspiracy to commit murder, even without determining who did what. This is important, because otherwise every conspirator could handle the murder weapon and then use as a defense that there’s no proof which one of them actually committed the murder. A conspiracy to commit murder charge eliminates this defense option, as they would still all be considered guilty.
There is one notable exception to the rule that a conspirator must take an action towards accomplishing the conspiracy’s goal, and that’s with drug conspiracy charges. For a drug conspiracy charge, there are only two necessary elements: an agreement between at least two people to violate one or more drug laws, and proof that the conspirators knew of and joined this agreement. This obviously gives the prosecution much more latitude, as this conspiracy charge will apply to more situations.
If you’re charged with conspiracy, it’s important to hire a skilled attorney to build a strong defense. While conspiracy charges are broad, they can also be very difficult for the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, so a qualified defense attorney can find weaknesses in the prosecution’s case and exploit them.
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