Federal Conspiracy Cases

Many federal crimes involve conspiracies, which, in addition to the underlying substantive crime, are subject to prosecution. Conspiracy charges are very serious, as they encompass a wide range of conduct and often add layers of complexity to a criminal case. Conspiracy charges carry heavy penalties, including lengthy prison sentences and large fines, making early engagement of an experienced federal criminal defense attorney critical. We have successfully defended clients against conspiracy charges arising in a broad array of federal criminal matters and have the knowledge and experience necessary to evaluate and pursue all potential defenses you might have. If you are under investigation for, or have been charged with conspiracy, call us today at (404) 658-9070.

What is a Conspiracy?

A conspiracy is an agreement between two or more people to do something that is against the law. The parties to the conspiracy must also specifically intend to commit the crime that is the objective of the agreement. This does not mean that each participant must know all the details of the crime to be committed or all the members of the conspiracy. Instead, to be liable for conspiracy, the participant must know that the agreement is to do something the law forbids. Once an individual has joined a conspiracy, he or she is derivatively liable for his or her co-conspirators’ illegal acts in furtherance of the conspiracy, even if he or she did not directly participate in those illegal acts. However, an individual cannot be charged with substantive crimes committed by others in the conspiracy if those crimes were committed before he or she joined the conspiracy, or after he or she successfully withdrew from the conspiracy.

Conspiracy is a crime separate and distinct from the crime that is the object of the conspiracy. For example, you can be charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering under 18 U.S.C. § 371 and with money laundering under 18 U.S.C. § 1956.

What are the Federal Conspiracy Laws?

The federal criminal code contains a number of statutes that criminalize conspiracies. The general federal conspiracy statute, 18 U.S.C. § 371, makes it illegal to conspire to commit “any offense against the United States.” It also makes it illegal to conspire “to defraud the United States.” Other statutes criminalize conspiracies to commit specific offenses. For example, 21 U.S.C. § 846 criminalizes conspiracies to commit drug trafficking, while 18 U.S.C. § 1349 outlaws conspiracies to commit federal fraud offenses, including mail fraud, wire fraud, and securities fraud.

To obtain a conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 371, the government must prove that (1) there was an agreement between two or more people either to defraud the government or to commit another federal crime; (2) the defendant willfully and knowingly joined the agreement; and (3) the defendant or another conspirator committed an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.

Section 371 conspiracies to defraud the government are conspiracies formed for the purpose of impairing, obstructing, or defeating the lawful functions of the federal government by deceit or dishonest means. The conspiracy may be to deprive the government of money or property, but it can also be to frustrate the functions of a federal entity. The offense clause of Section 371, which prohibits conspiracies to commit “any offense against the United States,” covers any conspiracy to violate federal law, and is not limited to offenses committed against the United States or its agents. Under this clause of the general conspiracy statute, the object of the conspiracy must be the violation of a specific federal criminal statute.

What Qualifies as an “Agreement” to Commit a Crime?

Under the law of conspiracy, the agreement itself is the crime, and it is the agreement between two or more people to commit a crime that separates conspiracy from offenses like aiding and abetting. The agreement does not have to be formal and is generally proven through circumstantial, versus direct, evidence, or is inferred from the defendant’s actions. While mere association with conspirators or mere knowledge of a conspiracy is not enough to establish an agreement, a tacit or mutual understanding is sufficient. Practically speaking, this means that it is relatively easy for the government to show the existence of an agreement for purposes of charging a conspiracy.

What is an Overt Act and is it Always Required?

Section 371 requires that one or more co-conspirators “do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy.” This is referred to as an “over act” in furtherance of the conspiracy. The overt act does not have to be criminal, and it does not have to be the substantive offense charged. The overt act required under Section 371 can be committed by any member of the conspiracy. Once the overt act is committed, all members have committed the crime of conspiracy.

Other conspiracies do not require overt acts. For example, conspiracies to violate the RICO Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1961; drug-trafficking conspiracies, 21 U.S.C. § 846; fraud conspiracies under 18 U.S.C. § 1349; and conspiracies to violate the Sherman Antitrust Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1, do not require an overt act.

Can a Member of a Conspiracy Withdraw From the Conspiracy to Avoid Liability?

A conspirator cannot effectively withdraw from a conspiracy he has joined by merely ceasing to participate in it. To withdraw from a conspiracy, the conspirator must take affirmative steps, which are inconsistent with the object of the conspiracy, to terminate his participation and abandon the illegal objective. He must also communicate his withdrawal in a way that is reasonably calculated to reach co-conspirators. Importantly, the withdrawal must be made before an overt act is committed by any co-conspirator. Withdrawal from a conspiracy is an affirmative defense, meaning it must be raised and proved by the defendant.

What is the Statute of Limitations for Conspiracy?

Section 371 conspiracies are subject to the general five-year statute of limitations for non-capital federal offenses set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3282. This five-year statute of limitations also applies to conspiracies under other federal statutes unless those statutes contain their own limitations periods. The statute of limitations for conspiracies that require an over act begins to run on the date of the last overt act. Concealing a conspiracy whose objective has been attained is not a conspiracy in and of itself and does not prolong the length of the conspiracy for purposes of the statute of limitations. For conspiracies under statutes that do not require an overt act, the conspiracy must continue into the limitations period. Because a conspiracy ends when its main criminal purpose has been achieved, whether the conspiracy has continued into the limitations period depends on the scope of the agreement and whether its purpose has been achieved or abandoned.

What are Some Defenses to a Charge of Conspiracy?

If you are being investigated for or have been charged with a criminal conspiracy, our firm’s experienced criminal defense attorneys can determine if you have any potential legal defenses. Defenses might include:

  • Mere presence/mere association. In some cases, a defendant may be able to show that while he associated with members of a conspiracy, had knowledge of the planned crime, or even acquiesced in it, he did not agree to join a conspiracy.
  • Withdrawal. In other cases, a defendant may be able to establish the affirmative defense of withdrawal by establishing that he effectively withdrew from the conspiracy before any overt act was committed. Defenses based on withdrawal after an overt act has been committed are really statute of limitations defenses since the statute of limitations begins to run upon the conspirator’s withdrawal from the conspiracy.
  • Lack of knowledge. A defendant may be able to show that he had no knowledge that there was a conspiracy, even if he acted in a way that furthered the conspiracy.

If you have a matter that you would like to discuss with experienced federal criminal defense lawyers, please contact us at (404) 658-9070.

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