The Reach of Federal Conspiracy Laws

Conspiracy is a crime that consists of an agreement between two or more persons to perform an illegal act or to perform a legal act in an illegal way.  Federal law recognizes conspiracy in several different criminal statutes.  The maximum penalties for these statutes range from five years to 20 or more years.  The crime is the unlawful agreement; it is not the accomplishing of the ultimate intended crime.  Moreover, in the federal system the penalties for conspiracy are independent of the penalty for the completed crime.  Thus, as a hypothetical example, there may be a conspiracy to obtain $1 million through a mail fraud but only a completed crime of a mail fraud of $100,000 if that is all that the conspirators obtained.  While convictions for the two crimes would probably run concurrently, the federal sentencing guidelines range for the conspiracy would be much higher and presumably drive the sentence.

Another aspect of conspiracy law is that co-conspirators need not have full knowledge of the criminal acts of others in the conspiracy to be culpable for those acts.  If the commission of an unlawful or criminal act during the course of the conspiracy is reasonably foreseeable, then all members of the conspiracy may be found guilty of that criminal act.  This is accomplice liability.  For instance, let’s assume that four people form a conspiracy to rob a bank.  Person A is to enter the bank and brandish a firearm to subdue everyone in the bank.  Person B is to enter the bank and collect money from the tellers.  Person C is to wait outside and drive the get away car.  Person D is to obtain ski masks for the others to wear to hide their identities.  If Person A kills someone in the bank, then all may be guilty of a homicide.  One theory of prosecution would be that a homicide is reasonably foreseeable under the facts outlined in the above scenario.

Obviously, conspiracy serves as a very important tool for prosecutors.  Its use often facilitates cooperation from persons implicated through the extensive reach of these laws.  Additionally, their imposition can result in severe sentences, often more severe than a sentence for the commission of the intended crime.

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