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Understanding Federal Criminal Conspiracy Laws and Charges

Understanding Federal Criminal Conspiracy Laws and Charges

Conspiracy laws aim to punish the danger of criminal schemes and agreements, even when the underlying crime doesn’t occur. Federal criminal conspiracy charges are common in major prosecutions these days. But what do these laws actually prohibit, and what defenses exist? This article breaks it down in simple terms.

The basics of conspiracy law come down to an agreement between 2 or more people to commit a federal crime or defraud the U.S. government. The crime happens when the agreement occurs – even if they don’t actually follow through on the planned illegal activity.

So if you and your friend agree to rob a bank, you could face conspiracy charges right then and there. Even if you guys never actually attempt the robbery. That early agreement itself was illegal.

The exact federal conspiracy statute is 18 U.S. Code § 371. It says:

“If two or more persons conspire either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof…and one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy, each shall be fined or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”

The Agreement

The first thing needed for a conspiracy charge is simply an agreement between 2 or more people. The agreement has to be about either:

  • Committing a specific federal offense
  • Defrauding the federal government in any way

This agreement can be spoken or unspoken. Prosecutors can use circumstantial evidence to prove an agreement existed, even without direct proof like recordings. Things like the defendant’s relationship with co-conspirators, their acts furthering the scheme, etc.

Overt Act

In addition to the illegal agreement itself, conspiracy charges require proof that at least one conspirator took some “overt act” to advance the goal.

This overt act does NOT itself need to be criminal. It only needs to help move the plot forward in some way. Things like:

  • Buying supplies
  • Surveilling a target location
  • Securing funding
  • Recruiting other conspirators

Pretty much any act in furtherance of the scheme can qualify. Prosecutors don’t need to prove that the defendant personally took an overt act either. If ANYONE in the conspiracy did so, it’s enough.

Federal Nexus

Since we’re talking about federal charges, there obviously needs to be some federal interest involved too.

For “offense clause” conspiracies aiming to violate federal law, this federal nexus is pretty straightforward. Plots to commit things like bank robbery, mail/wire fraud, civil rights violations, etc. clearly have federal implications.

For “defraud clause” conspiracies aiming to obstruct federal agencies, the federal tie is also built-in. These involve hindering agencies like IRS, FBI, FDA, EPA, etc. through fraud, deceit, or dishonest means.


If convicted under 18 U.S. Code § 371, penalties can include:

  • Up to 5 years in federal prison
  • Fines up to $250,000 for individuals or $500,000 for organizations
  • Supervised release after prison

However, many other federal conspiracy statutes carry even harsher sentences of 10-20+ years in prison. These target specific serious crimes like:

Unlike attempt or solicitation, conspiracy sentences get added on top of time for any underlying completed crime too. Defendants face “double punishment” – for both the agreement itself and any actual offenses committed.

Why Are Conspiracy Charges So Common?

Given the broad nature of conspiracy laws, they give prosecutors tons of flexibility. These charges can sweep up networks of co-conspirators, even those with minor roles.

Conspiracy cases also have built-in advantages for the government:

  • Statements of one defendant can be used against ALL in the conspiracy
  • Hearsay evidence gets admitted more freely
  • Circumstantial inferences of agreements apply
  • Overt acts by any ONE person implicate everyone
  • Continuing offense with flexible statute of limitations

U.S. Attorney General Robert Jackson famously said conspiracy is “the prosecutor’s darling.” These vague, sweeping charges allow creative interpretation to take down entire criminal organizations.

Defenses Against Federal Conspiracy Charges

Fighting federal conspiracy accusations takes careful strategy. Some potential defenses include:

No Actual Agreement

One defense focuses on the lack of any actual illegal agreement or “meeting of the minds.” Without direct evidence like recordings, the conspiracy agreement element gives some wiggle room here.

Defense lawyers can argue defendants acted independently, misunderstandings occurred, talks never solidified, etc. The facts may show illegal schemes were discussed but no firm mutual agreement made.

Withdrawal From the Conspiracy

Another defense claims the defendant withdrew from any conspiracy outside the 5-year federal statute of limitations.

To qualify as legally withdrawn, defendants must show they took affirmative steps inconsistent with the conspiracy and likely to thwart it. Things like:

  • Informing co-conspirators of withdrawal
  • Reporting the scheme to authorities
  • Thwarting activities in furtherance

If proven, withdrawal stops the conspiracy clock for that defendant alone. While co-conspirators stay on the hook, the withdrawn member can avoid charges.

Lack of Overt Act Within Limitations

Somewhat similarly, defendants can argue no conspirator committed an overt act in furtherance within the past 5 years. If the last recorded act was longer ago, the statute of limitations could expire.

This defense puts pressure on prosecutors to show affirmative steps taken toward the scheme inside the statutory window.

Manufacturing Jurisdiction

A unique defense sometimes used in conspiracy cases claims “manufactured jurisdiction.” This argues government informants pushed a fake plot simply to create federal jurisdiction where it wouldn’t naturally exist.

For example, if an FBI informant originates and drives all major planning for a supposed terrorism conspiracy, defense lawyers can claim it’s all artificial. Without the government plant’s involvement manufactured federal jurisdiction, no real conspiracy would occur.

Conspiracy Exceptions

Certain exceptions also apply in conspiracy law under what’s known as “Wharton’s Rule”. This rule basically says you cannot charge conspiracy for crimes that by definition require 2+ people to commit. Things like:

  • Dueling
  • Bigamy
  • Sexual intercourse
  • Adultery

The logic here makes sense. Since the underlying crime itself already requires agreement and participation of 2+ people, a separate conspiracy charge is redundant and doesn’t apply.

Sentencing Mitigation

Even if found guilty of federal conspiracy charges, all hope isn’t lost. The complex federal sentencing guidelines still leave room for defense lawyers to advocate for more lenient punishment.

Arguments related to playing a minor role, withdrawal, aberrant behavior, medical conditions, family ties, etc. can still reduce sentences. And supervised release after prison brings possibilities for early termination.

So while conspiracy laws give the government broad power, viable defenses remain. Experienced federal criminal defense attorneys can carefully build a case theory to undermine the prosecution’s position.

With sharp investigation, in-depth understanding of the facts, and mastery of complex conspiracy precedents, skilled lawyers fight back hard. And they craft compelling narratives that resonate with juries.

Federal conspiracy accusations demand highly specialized defense lawyers intimately familiar with this area of law. They know the ins and outs of battling conspiracy charges in court. And they’ve seen firsthand what strategies convince juries to acquit.

So don’t go it alone against the full force of federal power. The stakes are too high. Call in legal firepower of your own.

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