In criminal law, criminal conspiracy occurs when two or more people come together and create a plan to carry out a criminal offense. To be charged with conspiracy, the crime itself does not necessarily need to have taken place, rather there needs to be an intention for it to happen and at least one party must commit an overt act in furtherance of the crime. For example, purchasing a gun may not be considered conspiracy, but if the gun was purchased for use in a planned robbery, this could give rise to a conspiracy charge.
The conspiracy charge sentences are diverse and can be severe. Despite the crime not needing to have occurred, it is considered a serious offense in the court of law. As such, harsh penalties are usually handed out. In this article, we look at the sentences for conspiracy charges in more detail and any other factors that may influence the criminal penalties.
Understanding The Meaning of a Conspiracy Charge
In order to understand the different conspiracy charge sentences, it is important to understand the meaning of conspiracy. As mentioned, criminal conspiracy occurs when two or more individuals plan to commit an offense. In most states in the U.S., for an individual to be convicted of conspiracy, two requirements must be met::
- Both parties must have agreed to commit the crime; and
- At least one member of the group must take an overt act in furtherance of the crime.
Many illegal activities can give rise to conspiracy charges, including conspiring to do the following:
- Import drugs into the country from abroad
- Supply drugs to other people
- Commit fraud
- Commit theft of a property or vehicle
- Launder money
- Commit violent crimes
- Engage in human trafficking
- Engage in sexual exploitation
- Commit a murder
To prove that both parties have agreed to commit the offense, there does not need to be a written agreement or an in-depth plan. The crime does not have to be carried through to completion. However, if the crime has not been completed, then an overt act is required for conviction in most jurisdictions. This action isn’t necessarily a crime in and of itself, but it shows preparation for the offense. Examples include purchasing or renting the equipment needed for the crime such as weapons, masks, or a vehicle, gaining overly detailed information on a particular area or building, or frequently driving on a route that passes the scene where the offense will occur. These actions indicate that the crime would have occurred if law enforcement had not intervened when they did.
What is the Sentence for Conspiracy?
Conspiracy can be charged at both federal and state levels, depending on the nature of the crime. The sentencing and penalties vary accordingly. In federal court, the judge will generally award a mandatory minimum sentence of five years imprisonment in federal prison plus monetary fines. If the charge is only for a misdemeanor, such as conspiring to vandalize a building, the penalties will be much less severe. On the other hand, harsher crimes involving murder or drug trafficking can lead to 40 years in prison or even a life sentence. In terms of state penalties, these will vary depending on the specific conspiracy laws for each state. With that being said, the maximum sentence for conspiracy charges is usually the same as the maximum sentence for the underlying crime.
It is worth noting that in cases where the crime is committed, all parties will be charged with the same crimes and sentenced accordingly – the law does not require proof of which group member committed the crime, so long as there is evidence that someone in the group is responsible. However, it is also possible to receive separate penalties both for conspiracy and for committing the underlying crime. Therefore, if both parties were involved in the conspiracy but only one party was involved in the crime, the latter would typically receive two penalties and thus a harsher punishment. When state and federal laws are both broken, this too can result in more severe sentencing.
What Other Factors Affect the Sentencing for Conspiracy?
As with most crimes, the sentence handed out to the convicted individual varies depending on several factors that are considered by the judge. These can be either mitigating factors that will lower the sentence or aggravating factors that could result in more severe punishment. For example, the prosecutor and judge will look at all of the following:
- Previous number of criminal convictions
- Level of remorse and guilt for the conspiracy
- How well the defendant cooperates with authorities
- Amount of harm done to the victims
- Whether the planned crime was completed or not
- Whether the accused has any mental illnesses or disabilities
- The reputation and character of the defendant
- How aware the defendant was of their involvement
- The scale and severity of the offense
If the defendant has several mitigating factors, such as no previous criminal convictions, never followed the crime through to completion, and showed remorse for conspiracy, their sentence will be reduced. On the other hand, if a serious crime was committed and harm was caused to the victim, the penalties will be much more severe as several aggravating factors apply.
What Are The Sentencing Charges for Drug Conspiracy?
One of the most common federal charges is a conspiracy involving drug crimes. This is a good example to look at in terms of sentencing. Under 21 U.S.C. § 841 and 21 U.S.C. § 952 of the federal code, there are four different drug crimes: manufacturing, possession, distribution, and importation. The sentencing for federal drug conspiracy charges depends more on the type and quantity of drugs rather than the type of drug crime that has been planned.
For example, for drug crimes involving marijuana, no mandatory minimum sentence applies, and the maximum sentence is 20 years imprisonment. However, if over 100kg of marijuana is involved,the minimum sentence increases to 5 years, while the maximum extends to 40 years in prison. On the other hand, there is also no mandatory minimum sentence for crimes with unspecified amounts of methamphetamine. However, if the offense involves merely 5g of methamphetamines, then the minimum sentence is 5 years imprisonment, whereas there is a minimum of 10 years imprisonment if the conspiracy charges involve 50g or more.
How To Beat a Conspiracy Charge Case
Representation by a skilled criminal defense lawyer who knows the legal rights of the defendant is essential when attempting to beat a conspiracy charge. This can help the defendant’s sentence to be drastically reduced or have all charges dropped. To convict a person of conspiracy charges, there must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt that two or more people planned to commit an offense, and that there was some action of furtherance for the underlying crime. Therefore, an experienced defense attorney will argue to disprove these elements. For example, some of the ways that criminal attorneys can beat a conspiracy charge are to prove that there was:
- No agreement to commit a crime in the first place
- No real intent to commit the crime
- No overt act having been carried out or attempted
It is also possible to overcome conspiracy charges by proving that the defendant was initially involved in planning the offense, but has since backed out and withdrawn support. However, it’s ultimately the job of the prosecutor to prove that the defendant was guilty of this crime. It is not the job of the defense attorney to disprove, but the more evidence they can provide that the crime didn’t occur, the better. If a defense attorney cannot beat the charges, the best they can do is lower the sentence. For this, the attorney must provide mitigating factors at sentencing. Conspiracy charge sentences can also be reduced if the defendant pleads guilty early on in the proceedings, so this is another route that should be discussed with the client. Generally, the earlier they plead, the less severe the penalties awarded.
Conspiracy charges are an interesting part of U.S. law. No crime has to be committed for an individual or group to be charged with conspiracy. Rather, the prosecutors only need proof that the defendant has planned to carry out an offense and that they have carried out an overt act. As people can conspire to carry out a vast number of crimes – from supplying drugs to committing murder – the sentences awarded will vary drastically. Sentences are highly dependent on the nature of the case and can range from mild penalties for conspiring to vandalize, such as probation or a short period of incarceration, too many years in jail and fines for more severe offenses.
Mitigating factors also play a significant role in sentencing. The number of previous convictions, the awareness of the defendant, and whether the crime has been completed are all examples. For criminal attorneys working on conspiracy cases, it is also possible to get all charges dropped. To do this, the attorney needs to raise doubt that their client has no current involvement and no real intent to commit a crime.