Are you or someone you love being charged with criminal conspiracy? Conspiracy often comes up in federal drug cases, but I have also seen state conspiracy criminal charges.
Oftentimes when people consult with me about a conspiracy they initially tell me they can't possibly be charged with criminal conspiracy because they don’t even know the other people in the conspiracy. They’ve never met the other people (called co-conspirators, or co-defendants) in the supposed conspiracy.
So, does a person who is charged with conspiracy have to know the other people charged in the conspiracy?
This article will answer this question and give you a better understanding of what the government must prove to find someone guilty of criminal conspiracy.
In this article you will learn:
- What a criminal conspiracy charge looks like
- What elements must be present to find someone guilty of criminal conspiracy
- Whether someone charged with criminal conspiracy has to know the co-conspirators involved in the conspiracy
- The specifics on criminal conspiracy charges in South Carolina
- What a federal criminal conspiracy charge is
- The possible penalties for a criminal conspiracy conviction
Intro to Criminal Conspiracy Charges
First, let’s get a clear understanding of what a conspiracy is. A conspiracy is an agreement to commit an unlawful act or an agreement to commit a lawful act by unlawful means. Basically, two or more people have some objective that they want to achieve. These people (called co-conspirators, or co-defendants) help achieve their basic objective by offering each other encouragement and support.
By offering this encouragement and support, they make achieving the objective less likely that the project will be abandoned. In other words, they work together to achieve their goal and don’t let the others quit. If the others quit, the objective/project likely will still get done. When you get two or more people working towards a criminal objective, this may generate additional criminal activity and other people might get involved.
Once the agreement to do an unlawful act is reached, the conspiracy exists. The agreement is the defining and most important moment in a conspiracy case.
Did you know that many criminal conspiracy cases that start out being state charges end up being federal charges? Just because someone is charged initially in state court with conspiracy does not necessarily mean that the feds won’t pick up the state case and make it a federal case.
Criminal Conspiracy Charges: South Carolina
Conspiracy charges are laid out in SC Code #16-17-410: Conspiracy is “a combination between two or more persons for the purpose of accomplishing an unlawful object by unlawful means.”
Basically this means that at least two people get together to commit a crime. As long as there are two people it is enough, but it can definitely be more than two people. At some federal arraignments (which are similar to state bond hearings), there could be 10 or 15 codefendants lined up as co-conspirators from a federal drug bust. We will explore federal drug conspiracies later in this blog article.
The elements of conspiracy in SC are:
- A gathering of at least two people
- An agreement or understanding
- A reason for gathering, which is to either:
- Do something illegal
- Dosomething legal but by illegal means.
The agreement or understanding doesn’t have to be an actual, written or oral, agreement. It can be inferred. It doesn’t have to be a handshake, even. It is just a mutual agreement. The agreement can be very informal, implied, or not even verbalized. The agreement is necessary, but it doesn’t have to be some kind of legal, formal, written agreement. There are many ways the government can establish that an agreement, even if it’s an understood agreement, exists.
The reason for the gathering is either: 1.) to do something illegal (commit a crime), or 2.) to use criminal means to do something that is legal. The “reasoning” part of the gathering is the intent element in a conspiracy. The mental state to make an agreement is the “criminal intent” element. All co-conspirators must have full knowledge and intent to be a part of the conspiracy AND all conspirators must have the intent to commit the illegal goal of the conspiracy.
Conspiracy is not the same thing as attempt in South Carolina
An attempt requires one person who tries to commit a crime but doesn’t complete it. Conspiracy is a meeting of the minds (at least two) about committing a crime. You can be charged with both the conspiracy and the attempted crime.
For example, two or more people conspire to kill someone (murder) by poisoning the victim. Conspirator A researches what poisons to buy and tells the others. Conspirator B selects which poison and buys the poison. Conspirator C cooks the victim dinner with the poison in it. Everything is going as planned, but the victim does not die. The victim gets sick, but survives. The police learn of the poison and uncover the conspiracy after their investigation.
All 3 of the conspirators can be guilty of conspiracy to commit murder/ attempted murder because the conspiracy was complete once they all agreed in advance to kill the victim and took steps in furtherence of killing the victim. You can be guilty of conspiracy even if the ultimate goal of the conspiracy is not reached.
There can be an argument for having separate trials for separate conspirators. This is something your defense attorney may consider and argue during a hearing in front of a judge and prosecutor. The Judge will determine if there will be single or joint trials with co-conspirators. If you are tried alone, the judge will consider each case separately.
Penalties for a Conspiracy Conviction in SC
You can be charged with conspiring to commit a variety of crimes, or just one crime. That would be up to the government to decide how to charge you.
You can’t be sentenced to a greater fine or jail term than you would be sentenced to if you were convicted of committing the crime you were allegedly conspiring to commit.
If convicted of conspiracy in state court, it is a felony. You could be facing jail time of 0-5 years. This means there is no mandatory minimum jail sentence for criminal conspiracy. It is possible that someone could be sentenced to probation for criminal conspiracy if the judge determines it’s appropriate. However, it is also possible to go to prison for up to 5 years if a judge deems it appropriate.
Not only are you facing jail time, you could also be facing a fine anywhere from $0-$5,000. The fine will also be at the judge’s discretion, absent an agreement with the prosecutor, judge and defense attorney. This type of agreement is known as a plea deal.
Federal Conspiracy Charges
Federal criminal conspiracy charges are similar to the South Carolina statute on criminal conspiracy but with a few changes.
The elements of federal criminal conspiracy are:
- A gathering of at least two people
- An agreement or understanding
- The reason for gathering is to commit a FEDERAL crime or to defraud the United States or any federal agency (ex. DEA, FBI, Homeland Security, Border Patrol) in any manner and for any purpose
- At least one co-conspirator must make an “overt act” in furtherance of the conspiracy
- The overt act doesn’t have to be an illegal action
- Act must be something that helps move the conspiracy forward toward the crime they intend to commit together
- Each person in the conspiracy can be charged, not just the person who made the overt act
- Doesn’t rise to the level of attempt
Just as with South Carolina state conspiracy charges, the federal conspiracy agreement requirement doesn’t have to be an actual, written or oral, agreement; it can be inferred or informal. The agreement is a key element of the crime of conspiracy.
The reason for gathering requirement is the intent element. All co-conspirators must have full knowledge and intent to be a part of the conspiracy AND all co-conspirators must have the intent to commit the illegal goal of the conspiracy.
An important note that I referenced earlier in this blog article is that the co-conspirators do not have to know each other. They may have never met each other but they were working towards the same goal.
For example, in a federal drug conspiracy case, let’s assume very large quantities of drugs are being moved from Brazil to Charleston, SC. Let’s assume the drugs are being moved by boats coming into the Charleston harbor. The people in Charleston are somehow getting money to the people in Brazil, perhaps by wiring the money, mailing the money, flying the money, etc. There is more than one person in SC pooling their money together to save up a big enough amount to cover the shipment to Brazil. South Carolinian A does nothing other than provide money; that person doesn’t know the Brazilian dealer and never talks to her. South Carolinian B communicates with someone who knows the dealer in Brazil. South Carolinian C is in charge of wiring the money through the bank where South Carolinian C works. South Carolinian D rides around to different locations in SC, picking up cash to give to South Carolinian C. South Carolinian E travels to Brazil and back on a regular basis, bringin back the drugs from Brazil to Charleston. South Carolinian F sells the drugs and makes a profit; he then distributes to profit to all involved. In this example, every single person listed can be found guilty of Conspiracy. Even if some of the co-conspirators have never met each other or the Brazilian, they could be indicted and charged on federal conspiracy charges.
Penalties for a Federal Conspiracy Conviction
Felony Conspiracy Charge
If the crime the conspiracy was formed to commit is a felony, it is a felony charge. You could be facing 0-5 years in jail or a $0-$250,000 fine.
Misdemeanor Conspiracy Charge
If the crime the conspiracy was formed to commit is a misdemeanor, it is a misdemeanor charge. The maximum punishment can’t exceed the maximum possible punishment for the underlying misdemeanor the conspiracy was formed to commit.
Common Questions About Criminal Conspiracy Charges
- Is a conspiracy charge the same thing as an attempt charge?
No, a conspiracy essentially happens before an attempt is made, whether the attempt is successful or not.
- Can you be charged with conspiracy to commit armed robbery and the armed robbery?
Yes, you could be charged with both conspiracy to commit armed robbery and the armed robbery itself. This does not violate double jeopardy because they are two entirely separate crimes. This is where plea deals negotiated between your defense attorney and the prosecutor can be so important. The “bigger” offense may get thrown out in exchange for a guilty plea to the “smaller” offense.
- Is “I quit the conspiracy” a possible defense to criminal conspiracy charges? Can you still be charged if you quit the conspiracy before anything happens?
The answer is it depends. Withdrawing from the conspiracy can be a possible defense, but there are some specific requirements. Otherwise, you could still be found guilty of conspiracy, depending on the circumstances. Withdrawing from the conspiracy requires more than just quitting the conspiracy.
There are 2 requirements to withdraw from a conspiracy:
- You have to do something to be able to show that you quit the conspiracy; and
- You have to communicate in some way to another conspirator or law enforcement that you quit. The timing of this is relevant.
Your criminal attorney has to raise the issue that you withdrew from the conspiracy and prove it in court in order for this to be a valid defense. The government has the burden of proving you were a member of the conspiracy and that you didn’t withdraw from the conspiracy.
- Do I need a lawyer to fight a criminal conspiracy charge?
Yes. SC and federal criminal conspiracy charges can bring hefty fines and jail time. If convicted of conspiracy, this would go on your criminal record (rap sheet) Unless you feel comfortable arguing all the nuances of your case, consulting with a criminal defense lawyer may be beneficial to you.
Charged with Criminal Conspiracy?
Criminal conspiracy is a concept that I get the most questions about when handling large scale federal drug cases.
One way to think about it is spokes on a wheel. The spokes of the wheel work together to keep the tire supported and moving. They all work together for a goal of keeping the wheel round and supported. If everyone doesn’t participate and plan towards the same goal, the tire may not be supported enough and not move. If you understand this analogy, then you understand the just of criminal conspiracy.
Give me a call or fill out this form to discuss your criminal conspiracy charge and possible defenses.