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Defending Federal Conspiracy Charges: Challenges and Strategies

Defending Federal Conspiracy Charges: Challenges and Strategies

Conspiracy charges are no joke — they can carry lengthy prison sentences and be incredibly difficult to beat. So what do you do if federal prosecutors come after you with allegations of criminal conspiracy? This article breaks down key challenges defense attorneys face when representing conspiracy defendants, as well as proven strategies for mounting an aggressive defense.

What Makes These Cases So Hard to Defend?

There are a few reasons why federal conspiracy charges tend to be so challenging:

Broad Interpretation of the Law

The federal conspiracy statute — 18 U.S.C. § 371 — is infamously broad. Prosecutors don’t have to prove there was a formal, written agreement between the alleged co-conspirators; simply showing people were “working together” to commit a federal offense is enough. The government also doesn’t have to show the conspiracy succeeded, just that there was an agreement and someone did something (an “overt act”) to further it along.

With such a low bar, federal prosecutors can — and do — bring conspiracy charges in all kinds of scenarios. Conspiracy allegations often accompany cases involving drugs, fraud, bribery, racketeering, and other offenses.

Secretive Nature

By their very nature, criminal conspiracies involve secrecy among those accused of participating. This means critical meetings, conversations, plans, payments or other transactions may have occurred without any tangible records.

As defense attorneys, overcoming this lack of documentation poses a major hurdle. It also gives cooperating accomplices an opportunity to fabricate testimony or exaggerate certain events in hopes of securing leniency.

Harsh Potential Penalties

A conviction under § 371 carries up to 5 years in federal prison. However, penalties can ratchet up significantly depending on the object of the conspiracy. For example, a drug distribution conspiracy may trigger a 20+ year mandatory minimum sentence. Even peripheral players can get slammed with decades behind bars.

Faced with such extreme punishment, many defendants feel immense pressure to plead guilty early on. But skilled criminal defense lawyers know how to navigate these cases and achieve better outcomes.

Key Defense Strategies

Now let’s explore proven techniques for defending federal conspiracy charges:

Attack the Credibility of Cooperators

Flippers or informants are used in 8 out of 10 federal cases. Oftentimes, cooperators will embellish their testimony to portray the defendant as a central player in the conspiracy. Other times, they’ll flat out lie on the stand.

Exposing these witnesses as biased and incredible is paramount. Skilled defense lawyers will scour their backgrounds for red flags — e.g. prior inconsistent statements, motives to fabricate, faulty memory issues, etc. If you can undermine the credibility of government cooperators, the rest of the prosecution’s case may fold like a house of cards.

Challenge the Admissibility of Evidence

Another prime defense strategy is keeping damaging evidence out of court through suppression motions. For example, if federal agents violated the 4th Amendment by using illegal wiretaps or improper searches, the fruits of those efforts can be excluded.

Likewise, if prosecutors procured incriminating statements in violation of a defendant’s 5th and 6th Amendment rights, those admissions can be suppressed via Miranda motions. Kicking out the government’s most compelling proof early on may result in favorable plea offers or even prompt dismissal of charges.

Argue Lack of Criminal Intent

For both conspiracy and the underlying substantive crimes, prosecutors must prove criminal intent beyond a reasonable doubt. With fraud charges, for example, this means showing the defendant deliberately tried deceiving the victim.

In response, the defense may claim the accused acted in good faith reliance upon professionals or had no intent to defraud. While challenging criminal intent seldom leads to an acquittal, it can be an effective part of a broader defense strategy.

Dispute Key Elements of the Conspiracy

Beyond attacking government witnesses and evidence, conspiracy defendants can challenge the prosecution’s case on the law and facts. Particularly in white collar cases, the defense may claim:

  • There was no illicit agreement between the co-defendants, just legitimate business or professional activities
  • The defendant was not a knowing, willing participant in the conspiracy, but instead got ensnared unknowingly
  • The defendant withdrew from the conspiracy before any crimes occurred
  • Certain actions cited as “overt acts” either didn’t happen or were benign events taken out of context

While each case has its own unique set of facts, these examples illustrate ways the defense can undermine the legal sufficiency of the government’s conspiracy allegations.

Seek Sentencing Variances

If convicted at trial, filing a sentencing memorandum seeking leniency is a must. Even mandatory minimum sentences are not always set in stone. By emphasizing mitigating factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), judges can still impose sentences well below the guidelines or mandatory minimums.

An experienced federal criminal defense lawyer will craft a persuasive variance argument highlighting the defendant’s minimal role in the offense, extraordinary family circumstances, health conditions, age, employment history, charitable deeds, low risk of recidivism, and other mitigators. Booker variances offer defendants facing conspiracy counts their last hope for a reasonable sentence.

The Bottom Line

Defending federal conspiracy charges is undoubtedly an uphill battle. However, an aggressive defense combining smart legal strategies and zealous advocacy can still achieve favorable results – even against the longest of odds.

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