Conspiracy is one of the most frequently prosecuted federal crimes in the United States today. Charges are leveraged against two or more individuals when the government believes that they have made an agreement or conspired to commit a criminal act. Conspiracy is one of the only charges that doesn’t require a criminal act other than the conspiracy itself to take place in order to prosecute.
Instead, a prosecutor only has to prove that there was an agreement between conspirators to commit the crime. The agreement doesn’t have to be in writing or even very detailed for a person to be charged with conspiracy. These charges allow the government to identify multiple defendants in the same indictment and try them together in a joint trial. High-profile examples include drug cartels, organized crime, and pyramid or Ponzi schemes. Because of the nature of the underlying crimes being planned, conspiracy charges tend to result in harsh penalties being handed down by federal courts.
A defense attorney well-versed in conspiracy law can work with you to build a compelling defense against conspiracy charges. When your freedom is on the line, the attorneys at Berry Law have the experience and knowledge you need to fight back.
Conspiracy Drug Charges
While conspiring to almost any type of crime can result in conspiracy charges, some of the most common federal conspiracy charges include crimes that involve drugs. Conspiring to make plans to manufacture, distribute, possess with the intent to distribute, or import illegal narcotics are examples.
- Conspiracy to manufacture- Individuals who are producing, processing, or extracting a controlled substance may also be charged with conspiracy if it’s found they are working together.
- Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute- Law enforcement must show evidence that there was an intention by the parties involved to distribute the possessed drugs. These charges could be brought in cases where evidence of packaging materials, scales, and other paraphernalia are found with large quantities of drugs.
- Conspiracy to distribute- When the government has evidence that drugs are being supplied to other people, conspiracy charges may be added to distribution charges. Demonstrating that money changed hands is not required to charge someone with conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance.
- Conspiracy to import- When drugs are being brought into the United States from foreign countries through the deception of U.S. Customs officials, it’s common for involved parties to be charged with conspiracy.
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Conspiracy Charges & White-Collar Crimes
One of the most high-profile conspiracy cases in recent history involved the College Admissions Scandal. Several big-name celebrities were accused of bribing college admissions departments to ensure their children’s acceptance to prestigious universities across the country. Many of the students in question were admitted to those universities using falsified qualifications.
Federal prosecutors charged 50 people with honest services mail fraud, conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and in some cases, felony conspiracy to commit money laundering, all serious charges that often result in long prison sentences if convicted.
These so-called white-collar crimes often include conspiracy charges for federal mail and wire fraud, mortgage fraud, healthcare fraud, or conspiracy to commit bribery, among other offenses. Typically, the defendants are accused of being involved in a scheme with the intention of defrauding others of money or property.
Conspiracy & Crimes Against a Person or Property
People involved in the commission of a violent crime like armed robbery, rape, or murder, or sexually-based crimes such as human trafficking or sexual exploitation may also face conspiracy charges if they conspired with others to commit the crime. Likewise, the theft of a vehicle or other property by two or more individuals may involve charges of conspiracy.
All that is required for conspiracy charges to be brought against an individual is for the government to prove that there was an agreement to commit the crime in a question and that at least one of the alleged co-conspirators took a substantial step toward committing that crime.
Federal Conspiracy Cases in Nebraska
In order to charge someone with conspiracy in Nebraska, a prosecutor must be able to show:
- The defendant intended to commit a felony offense.
- The defendant agreed with at least one other person to commit a crime or hire someone else to commit it.
- The defendant or a co-conspirator showed intent to go through with the crime through an overt act.
Defendants can be found guilty of conspiracy if a jury finds that they showed intent to promote or facilitate the commission of a crime. The prosecution must demonstrate that there was an agreement between two or more people to commit the crime in question or to solicit someone else to commit the crime for them, as in the case of murder-for-hire.
Additionally, prosecutors must prove that one of the individuals involved in the conspiracy followed through by his or her overt actions to pursue the crime. Some examples of an overt act might include hiring a hitman, purchasing a weapon, mask or duct tape, or renting equipment, such as a vehicle, needed to commit a crime. Gathering details and information on a particular location or building or traveling a route near the scene of a conspired crime could also be overt acts.
Overt acts can include any action that suggests that the conspired crime would have occurred if law enforcement had not intervened. Prosecutors do not have to prove that the crime actually happened, only that there was a conspiracy to commit it.
In some cases, it’s possible for a defendant to be charged with conspiring with another person that they’ve never even met. For example, many of the parents charged in the College Admissions fraud case had never met one another, but they were part of a larger conspiracy that involved a third party. This might also happen in a situation where two co-conspirators discussed plans for murder and one of them hired a third party to commit the crime. All three could be charged for conspiring with one another.
This can complicate situations where a defendant is being accused of fraud by participating in a pyramid or Ponzi scheme. The individuals at the bottom of the so-called pyramid often have very little knowledge regarding the actions of the people at the top, but they can still be charged with conspiracy.
Conspiracy is its own charge, separate from charges that may occur due to the commission of crimes stemming from the conspiracy. However, when a crime is acted upon to completion, the court holds all co-conspirators to be equal on the conspiracy charge, regardless of who carried out the criminal act in question. Alleged co-conspirators are typically charged and sentenced equally when it comes to the conspiracy charge. However, there may be separate, harsher penalties for the individual who completed the conspired crime. Even in situations where a person conspires to commit more than one crime, he or she is still only charged with one conspiracy.
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Penalties for Conspiracy
The penalties for a conspiracy conviction are based on the most serious offense involved in the conspiracy. If the charge leveraged is a misdemeanor, such as conspiring to vandalize a building or theft, penalties will be less severe than for felony charges.
In Nebraska, a Class III felony conspiracy charge carries the same penalties as a Class III felony charge. The exception to that rule is that conspiracy to commit a Class I felony is subject to the same sentencing guidelines as a Class II felony. For example, conspiring to commit rape and first-degree murder typically carry a lesser penalty than being convicted on charges of rape and first-degree murder, which are Class I felonies.
Sentencing guidelines in general treat harsher conspiracy crimes like murder or drug trafficking with harsher penalties. In some cases, conspiring to commit murder or to engage in the trafficking of narcotics can mean sentences of 40 years to life imprisonment. Federal drug conspiracy penalties are usually influenced by the type and quantity of drugs in question.
Breaking both state and federal laws can result in more severe sentencing, with the maximum sentence typically being the same as the maximum sentence for the underlying crime. A judge in a federal conspiracy case will generally assign a mandatory minimum five-year sentence in federal prison plus monetary fines.
There are many mitigating factors that a prosecutor or judge may consider when it comes to sentencing:
- A defendant’s previous number of criminal convictions.
- His or her level of remorse or guilt for the crime.
- How well the defendant cooperated with authorities.
- The amount of harm done to the victim or victims.
- Whether the conspired crime was carried through to completion.
- A defendant’s mental health or disabilities at the time of the conspiracy.
- The defendant’s reputation and character.
- The level of awareness the defendant had of his or her involvement in the conspiracy.
- The scale and severity of the offense.
Conspiracy is a serious criminal charge, and one that shouldn’t be tackled alone. The criminal defense team at Berry Law can advise you on how to move forward if you’re facing criminal conspiracy charges. The following are some common defense strategies against conspiracy. Contacting an attorney is the only way to know what defense is right for your situation.
No Agreement Defense
Since the burden of proof is on the prosecution to show that a conspiracy took place, a defense attorney may argue that their client was not part of the conspiracy to commit a criminal act and may not even know the alleged co-conspirators. If the prosecutor fails to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an agreement was formed and at least one overt act occurred to further the crime, charges may be dropped.
Failure to List Overt Acts
Prosecutors are required to list the overt acts they allege were committed to further the commission of a crime in the initial indictment paperwork for a conspiracy charge. If they fail to do so, an attorney may argue to drop charges.
The defense argues that the defendant withdrew from the conspiracy, which may absolve him or her from any other felonies committed beyond the original plan. For example, if the accused individual refused to keep selling drugs, defraud others of their money, or bring in additional investors to a pyramid scheme, they may not be responsible for crimes committed beyond the end of their involvement. Evidence of withdrawal could include text messages, emails, voice recordings, or written communication.
In Nebraska, a defendant who completely withdraws from a conspiracy and warns law enforcement of possible crimes may be found to have renounced the plan if they also tried to make a reasonable effort to prevent other members of the conspiracy from committing a crime.
Taking the Stand
When large groups of individuals are tried simultaneously in conspiracy cases, there is a risk that a jury may lump all of the defendants together regardless of degrees of guilt. Lesser participants can be associated with individuals who were heavily involved. Having a defendant take the stand can sometimes illustrate his or her limited knowledge or involvement in the conspiracy to a jury.
Contact an Attorney Right Away
An attorney can help lower or negotiate the sentence on a conspiracy charge by demonstrating mitigating factors for a judge to consider at sentencing. Sentences may also be reduced if a defendant pled guilty early on in proceedings. Typically, the earlier a defendant pleads, the less severe the penalties.