Allegations of criminal conspiracy are frequently used by prosecutors to link minor participants in a crime to more serious actions committed by others. While conspiracy laws were originally passed to deal with the mafia, they are now used even for relatively minor crimes like small time burglary rings. Because of the broad application and definition of conspiracy, it can be very difficult to beat a conspiracy charge.
What Exactly Is a Criminal Conspiracy?
A charge of criminal conspiracy requires the proof of several elements. First, that there was more than one person.
Second, that those involved had some sort of intent to commit a crime. It's not a conspiracy simply because one person in a group committed a crime.
Third, at least one step must be taken towards the commission of the crime. Simply talking about it isn't enough for a conspiracy. However, the step taken doesn't need to be a crime for a conspiracy charge to be brought. If bank robbers bought masks in a costume store (a perfectly legal transaction) but were foiled before the actual robbery, they could still be charged with conspiracy to commit bank robbery.
Not Going Through With the Crime Isn't Enough
Not going through with the actual crime isn't enough to avoid a conspiracy charge. If the above example was changed so that one of the bank robbers got cold feet and ran away after they bought the masks, he could still be charged with conspiracy to commit bank robbery if the others went through with the robbery without him.
At minimum, a conspirator must tell the others that he is no longer participating. The runaway bank robber would need to tell the others, "This is wrong. I'm not going to do it, and you shouldn't either."
In some states, just announcing the end of your participation might not be enough to avoid a conspiracy charge. There may be a requirement to try to prevent the crime by warning either the victim or the local authorities.
Making a Deal
Prosecutors in conspiracy cases love to make deals. They often try to get one of the minor participants to testify against the bigger participants to ensure that the bigger participants are convicted. In exchange, the person testifying may receive a reduced sentence, lesser charges, or be let off entirely.
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