Conspiracy Charges: Penalties, Punishments and Defenses

To support conspiracy charges, the prosecution must prove that (1) a person entered an agreement to commit a crime or illegal act, (2) with at least one other person, and (3) that at least one person to the agreement performed an act to further the agreement. Penalties and punishments for conspiracy charges vary by state and the type of crime planned. Enter your ZIP code below to consult with a local attorney about the laws in your state.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Conspiracy charges are charges that a person has entered into an agreement with another person to commit a crime or an illegal act. A successful conviction for a conspiracy charge requires that an action was taken to begin carrying out the agreement. Before a defendant makes any final decisions about how to proceed with a crime of conspiracy allegation, they should understand the nature of the charges, any possible defenses, and the penalties associated with the charge.

What are the elements of conspiracy charges?

Many people assume that a conspiracy charge requires a large number of people or a substantial amount of criminal activity. In actuality, a conspiracy charge actually requires a great deal less. Generally, to support conspiracy charges, the prosecution must prove that (1) a person entered an agreement, (2) with at least one other person, and (3) that at least one person to the agreement performed an act to further the agreement.

A conspiracy charge really punishes people for doing just a little more than entering into an agreement to commit a crime with another person. The conspiracy is complete once one person does something to start working on completing the agreement. The level of this “one thing” will vary by state, but many do not require a high level of activity. In some states, for example, the actions taken in furtherance of the agreement don’t even have to constitute a substantial step in the commission of the actual offense. For example, if a person agrees to help another person sell drugs and then gives that person information about or directions to where to sell or purchase certain controlled substances, then the conspiracy was complete once the first person gave directions—which constituted an act to further the agreement. The action taken does not have to be a criminal act in and of itself.

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What are common defenses to a conspiracy charge?

Most defenses to a conspiracy charge will be set out in the state’s penal code. Many codes actually bar certain defenses. For example, in Texas, it is not a defense that one of the persons involved in the offense has immunity or is legally incapable of committing the offense. For example, a minor cannot agree to sell drugs but could be included as a co-conspirator if a defendant was using the minor to traffic drugs.

Other defenses are more like defensive strategies. Because conspiracy punishes the agreement, the most direct defense is to prove that an agreement never existed. Conspiracy charges require that a person charged with conspiracy had an agreement with another person to actually commit a crime. If the second person did not actually agree but merely pretended to agree, as in where one of the parties to the conspiracy was a police officer, there was no agreement because only one person had the intent to actually agree to commit the crime.

Another defensive strategy is to wait for co-conspirators to “fall out.” If all of the other co-conspirators are acquitted and found not guilty of their charges, then some states will bar further prosecution of the last remaining defendant.

What is the punishment for conspiracy charges?

Although a conspiracy charge seems like a lower level charge when compared to a completed charge, it should not be taken lightly. Conspiracy charges can still result in a final felony conviction.

Most states will usually punish conspiracy charges one or two degrees lower than a completed charge. For example, if a complete charge of theft or embezzlement is a first-degree felony in a defendant’s state, then a conspiracy to commit the same charge would be a second-degree felony, one degree lower.

The sentences and penalties for criminal conspiracy charges vary depending on the level of the planned crime and depending on the state. Despite the lower range, defendants also suffer through with the same collateral consequences of the completed charge.

If a defendant is convicted of conspiracy to commit a sexual offense, they may still be required to register as a sex offender.  If a defendant is convicted of conspiracy to distribute drugs, their driver’s licenses could be suspended. If a defendant is convicted of a non-violent, white-collar felony conspiracy charge, then they could face deportation if they are in the country illegally or be denied citizenship.

Although it is a lesser charge of a completed offense, conspiracy can still be a serious charge at the state level. Since specific rules for punishment and defenses vary by state, a defendant should consult with a criminal defense attorney in their area for help resolving conspiracy charges.

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