Federal Criminal Conspiracy
Numerous federal criminal cases are organized as so-called “conspiracy.” matters This article will help you better understand the concept of a federal criminal conspiracy, the elements that the government needs to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt to establish that there was collusion involving multiple defendants, in addition to some of the defenses to successfully evade or combat a criminal conspiracy. The article takes into account the most recent case law from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which redefined federal conspiracy law in 2018 a way that gives preference to accused defendants.
Our firm, is a specialist in federal criminal defense law. We offer our clients across the country tried and true defense strategies against federal investigations. Our attorneys routinely defend clients that are facing allegations of conspiracy to commit:
The Parts of a Conspiracy Charge
According to federal law, a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more people (some states only require one person, notably New York) to join together to attempt to accomplish some unlawful purpose. It is not at all relevant whether the conspiracy plan worked out and whether the conspiracy was fruitful.
Elements of Conspiracy Made Simple
Agreement: The basic detail of a conspiracy is that two or more people agree between themselves to commit a crime. While numerous conspiracies are characterized an express agreement, in which people meet or converse on the phone to work out their criminal plans and agreement, such as a plan to commit a robbery of a casino, the government could also demonstrate what is called an indirect conspiracy. In an indirect conspiracy, the circumstances make clear that the collaborators were all planning to and/or did commit a crime, even in the absence of any express agreement.
Although it is not required that every member of the conspiracy knows all the details of the criminal plan, each individual must at least implicitly agree to the same, illegal endeavor. Moreover, the participants in a conspiracy do not all need to know one another. Conversely, in numerous conspiracies, the individuals charged in the indictment have never even heard the names of many of their co-defendants before the criminal charges were made, never had any sort of business dealings with them, and never even met them. Noentheless, in such conspiracies, the collaborators are all connected through the common goal to commit a crime or through other individual members of the group. Many times, all the members work for, or are contractors for, one company. Just a one-time single agreement can be enough to establish a conspiracy, although there may be several unique criminal objectives of that conspiracy.
In the Fifth Circuit, which encompasses Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, the Court recently entered an opinion emphasizing that the burden is on the government to prove a conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt. In United States v. Ganji. No. 16-31119 (5th Cir. Jan. 30, 2018), the Court explained: “[c]onspirators do not enter into an agreement by happenstance, and because an agreement is the essential element of conspiracy, an agreement to commit a crime cannot be lightly inferred.” Id. at 9. In other words, the government is obligated prove an agreement to commit a crime existed beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. at 10. “The actions surrounding the defendant and the co-conspirators’ conduct, taken together, must show they intentionally entered into an agreement.” Id. And even though a conspiracy may be proven by indirect or circumstantial evidence, in such cases, “the Government must present evidence of the conspirators’ individual actions that, taken together, evidence an agreement to commit an unlawful objective beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id. (emphasis in original).
Intent: To be able to prove a conspiracy, the government is obligated to demonstrate specific intent. In other words, the defendant must have intended to agree to commit a crime, not simply approve someone else’s commission of that crime. Said defendant was to have possessed a direct intention to commit the crime that is the subject of the alleged conspiracy.
Often, defendants wonder whether the government must prove that each individual collaborator of the conspiracy intended to execute the crime that is the target of the conspiracy, or whether it is good enough for the government to prove the intention to enter into an agreement to commit a crime. The answer is the latter: the federal conspiracy law simply requires the prosecution to show intent to engage in some type of unscrupulous conduct, as opposed to requiring evidence that the defendant was aware of the specific circumstances of each element of the crime. In other words, “a corrupt motive or intent to do wrong” is sufficient to create a conspiracy, regardless of the details of the crime that is actually committed. See United States v. Feola, 420 U.S. 671 (1975) (affirming conviction of multiple defendants for conspiracy to assault a federal agent despite defendants’ lack of knowledge that drug buyer was federal agent).
One unique dilema that sometimes arises in conspiracy cases is how to handle things when an individual collaborator in the conspiracy only participates by furnishing goods and/or services that in themselves are legal. Most courts concur that such a person can still be held accountable for conspiracy if he or she is aware that their customer is going to use those goods and/or services to commit a crime. The government is not obligated to prove that the goods or services were provided with the express intent of supporting or advancing a criminal offence.
Overt Act: Finally, under general federal conspiracy legislation, at least one overt act must have been committed in the carrying-out of the conspiracy. At least one of the collaborators must have taken some action to actually set the conspiracy in motion, on top of the agreement to commit a criminal act.
Nonetheless, not all conspiracy charges require that an overt act to further the conspiracy be committed in order for a conspiracy conviction to be obtained. For instance, the government often charges healthcare fraud conspiracies under a unique statute that does not necessitate an overt act – simply an agreement to commit a crime is sufficient. See United States v Jones, 733 F.3d 574, 584 (5th Cir. 2015) (“Section 371 contains an overt-act requirement, but Section 1349 does not contain an overt-act requirement”); refer also to United States v. Ellis, NO. H-10-416-S, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95302, at *23 (S.D. Tex. Aug. 25, 2011) (“Since the conspiracies in question were both charged under 18 U.S.C. § 1349, no overt acts were required to be alleged or proven.”). Healthcare fraud is not the only type of conspiracy that gets charged under this law. Conspiracies to commit wire or mail fraud are also frequently charged under this section.
Disadvantages to Conspiracy Defendants
Conspiracies can give prosecutors huge advantages in criminal cases. Unlike other crimes, conspiracy is sanctionable even if the target crime remains incomplete (or unproven). Conspiracy is a powerful and well liked weapon for prosecutors since it permits the government to take advantage of the evidentiary rules to obtain convictions.
First, each co-conspirator is deemed to have authorized other collaborators in the conspiracy to act and speak on their behalf. Thus, it follows that any statements that co-conspirators provide in furtherance of the conspiracy can be admitted at a later date at trial to demonstrate that the defendant entered into a conspiracy. See Bourjalily v. United States, 483 U.S. 171 (1987) (allowing hearsay statements by a co-conspirator as admissible evidence if the prosecutor first proves by a preponderance of the evidence that a conspiracy exists).
Second, a prosecutor is at liberty to try all co-conspirators in a single trial. This method is far more efficient than having to select a new jury and hold a unique trial for every defendant. A defendant has the right to move to sever his or her trial, but customarily, this option is disfavored by the court.
Third, each co-conspirator can be held accountable for any reasonably calculable criminal act committed by another collaborator in furtherance of the conspiracy in question. In other words, the prosecution is not required to demonstrate that the defendant intended to assist or otherwise facilitate or encourage the commission of the crime. The prosecutor is simply obligated to prove that a crime was foreseeable. Every collaborator in a conspiracy is vicariously liable by entering into an agreement and is automatically considered to have given authority to every member of the conspiracy to act as an agent of the others to commit a crime. Pinkerton v. United States, 328 U.S. 640 (1946).
Possible Defenses Against Conspiracy Charges
Under some circumstances, individuals charged with conspiracy might be capable of defeating said charges by raising a specific affirmative defense recognized by federal conspiracy law. If the defendant can show that he renounced the conspiracy or withdrew himself from it, or that the conspiracy failed, he or she may be found not guilty.
Renunciation: According to the majority of the legislation, defendants can exercise the defense of renunciation. The affirmative defense of renunciation necessitates that the defendants must have actively hindered the success of the conspiracy and that their abandonment was both complete and voluntary. An example of a successful renunciation is to tip off law enforcement officials before any crime takes place as long as the renunciation does not come in too late, and the success and completion of the crime can be impeded. Merely abandoning a conspiracy in an effort to evade criminal charges does not suffice.
Withdrawal: Another possible defense is if a collaborator informs the other members of the conspiracy that he is going to withdraw and cease and desist from the conspiracy. A collaborator’s notification to all co-conspirators that he or she no longer intends to participate in the criminal plan, as long as it is done in a manner that allows time for the other conspirators to also elect to abandon the conspiracy, allows the evasion of criminal penalties for all future crimes. This does not, however, absolve a person of any past crimes. Withdrawal from a conspiracy cannot alleviate the burden of crimes that were already committed. The federal courts explicitly allow the defense of withdrawal as long as the defendant takes unquestionable actions that are inconsistent with the goals of the conspiracy and takes reasonable steps to effectively communicate his abandonment to his co-conspirators U.S. v. U.S. Gypsum Co., 438 U.S. 422, 464-465 (1978).
Impossibility: While legal and factual impossibilities almost never take place, a defendant would not be convicted of conspiracy if the parties agree to commit an act that they believe is a crime, when in fact it is not a crime to commit the planned act. When no law prohibits the planned actions, a conspiracy cannot be demonstrated despite the members’ willingness to break the law. Prosecutors are prevented from imposing conspiracy laws to sanction the conduct of a person whose participation in the offense in question is logically required, but whose behavior is not made criminal by that offense.