Federal criminal conspiracy.

AuthorArreola, Robert R.
PositionTwelfth Survey of White Collar Crime

    1. Agreement

    2. Illegal Goal

    3. Knowledge, Intent, and Participation

    4. Overt Act III. DEFENSES

    5. Statute of Limitations

    6. Insufficiency of the Indictment

    7. Variance

    8. Multiplicitous Indictment

    9. Insufficient Evidence

    10. Withdrawal


    12. Evidentiary Issues

      1. Standard of Proof

      2. Order of Proof

    13. Sixth Amendment Issues V. ENFORCEMENT

    14. Vicarious Liability

    15. Joinder and Severance

    16. Acquittal of Other Co-Conspirators VI. SENTENCING


    Under the general federal conspiracy statute it is a crime for "two or more persons [to] conspire . . . to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose."(1) Conspiracy is distinct from the substantive crime contemplated and is charged as a separate offense.(2) Acquittal on a conspiracy charge does not bar prosecution of the substantive offense.(3) Likewise, acquittal of the substantive offense does not bar conviction on the conspiracy count.(4) Conspiracy, coined the prosecutor's "darling,"(5) is one of the most commonly charged federal crimes.(6)

    The Supreme Court has described the gravity of the conspiracy offense:

    For two or more to confederate and combine together to commit or cause to

    be committed a breach of the criminal laws, is an offense of the gravest

    character, sometimes quite outweighing, in injury to the public, the mere

    commission of the contemplated crime. It involves deliberate plotting to

    subvert the laws, educating and preparing the conspirators for further and

    habitual criminal practices. And it is characterized by secrecy, rendering

    it difficult of detection, requiring more time for its discovery, and

    adding to the importance of punishing it when discovered.(7)

    In addition to [sections] 371, there are specific provisions proscribing conspiracy in more than twenty federal statutes.(8) These provisions attach to the particular substantive offenses of the statute in which they appear. Section 371, on the other hand, is generally applicable to any conspiracy where the goal is to "commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States"(9) and proscribes any agreement to violate a civil or criminal federal law.(10)

    The essential features of a conspiracy--secrecy and concealment(11)--make conspiracies difficult to prosecute, especially if they are successful. Consequently, the law lessens the government's burden of proving the essential elements by only requiring a showing of the "essential nature of the plan" and "[the conspirators'] connections with it" to ensure that conspirators do not "go free by their very ingenuity."(12)

    This Article first outlines the basic elements of a conspiracy offense under [sections] 371. Defenses available to challenge charges brought under the statute are discussed in Part III of the Article. Part IV discusses the evidentiary and constitutional guidelines governing admissibility of co-conspirator hearsay testimony at trials involving conspiracy charges. Part V surveys various procedural and substantive rules regarding enforcement of the statute. Finally, the rules governing a conspiracy conviction under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are discussed.


    There are four elements necessary for proving a criminal conspiracy, each of which the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt.(13) A conspiracy exists where there is: (1) an agreement between at least two parties; (2) to achieve an illegal goal; (3) with knowledge of the conspiracy and with actual participation in the conspiracy; and (4) at least one conspirator committed an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.(14)

    1. Agreement

      The first essential element that the government must prove to establish a conspiracy is the existence of an agreement between two or more persons(15) to work together toward a common goal. The "essence" of a conspiracy "is an agreement to commit an unlawful act."(16) However, it is not necessary for the government to prove a formal agreement.(17) An understanding among conspirators is sufficient to constitute an agreement;(18) however, "[m]ere association with conspirators" or "mere knowledge . . . without cooperation" is not enough.(19) This element may be proven through circumstantial evidence(20) or may be inferred from the defendant's actions.(21) The existence of a conspiratorial agreement may also be proven by evidence of previous similar criminal activities.(22) Co-conspirators may enter the agreement at any time during the course of the conspiracy.(23)

      Under [sections] 371, an agreement between only two actors, one of whom is a government agent, cannot support a conspiracy conviction.(24) However, a government agent, often a government informant, can serve as a link between a true conspirator and a defendant.(25)

      In addition, an agreement by two persons to commit a particular crime cannot be prosecuted as a conspiracy if the commission of the crime itself requires the participation of two persons.(26) This rule, called Wharton's Rule,(27) "applies only to offenses that require concerted criminal activity."(28) If, however, the number of actual conspirators exceeds the number required to commit the substantive offense, the government may charge the conspiracy separately.(29)

      For the purposes of [sections] 371, a corporation can be one of the conspirators.(30) An agreement to conspire under [sections] 371 provides an exception to the intra-corporate conspiracy doctrine in most jurisdictions. Although in the antitrust context a corporation cannot conspire with its own officers, agents, and employees,(31) a corporation can be held criminally liable if convicted of conspiring with its officers, agents, or employees in violation Of [sections] 371.(32)

    2. Illegal Goal

      The second essential element in a federal conspiracy charge is that the conspiracy have an illegal goal.(33) The government must establish that the aim of the conspiracy was either to violate a federal law (the offense clause) or to defraud or hinder a lawful federal government objective (the defraud clause).(34) Section 371's "defraud" clause broadly applies to "any conspiracy for the purpose of impairing, obstructing or defeating the lawful function of any department of [the Federal] Government."(35) While the language of the defraud clause is "not confined to fraud as that term has been defined in the common law,"(36) and although the Supreme Court's language in Hammerschmidt v. United States(37) seemed to require that the means to defraud be dishonest,(38) Supreme Court cases both prior and subsequent to Hammerschmidt have upheld conspiracy convictions which did not charge dishonest or deceptive means.(39) Some circuits have affirmed convictions on conspiracy counts absent allegations of fraud or dishonesty,(40) while other circuits require such a showing.(41) It is not necessary that the conspiracy subject the government to property or pecuniary loss.(42)

      Similarly, the "offense" clause of [sections] 371 is not limited to offenses committed against the United States or its agents.(43) To fall within the offense clause, the object of the conspiracy must be the violation of a specific federal statute.(44) It is not necessary that the conspirators intend or know that the conspiracy will violate federal law; a concert of action is sufficient to prove this element.(45) In cases where the offense and defraud clauses overlap, the indictment may charge conspiracy to defraud even when the object of the conspiracy is prohibited by a specific statute so long as the indictment provides sufficient notice of the charges.(46)

    3. Knowledge, Intent, and Participation

      The third element the government must prove is that the defendant knew of the conspiratorial agreement and voluntarily participated in it.(47) The government need not prove that the defendant knew all the details(48) or objectives(49) of the conspiracy,or that the defendant knew the identity of all the participants in the conspiracy.(50) Thus, the existence of a conspiracy and a defendant's participation in it can be inferred from the circumstances and "need not be proved by direct evidence."(51) Acts committed by the defendant which furthered the objectives of the conspiracy are often sufficient to show that the defendant was a knowing participant.(52) Once the government proves the existence of a conspiracy, only "slight connection" evidence may be needed to show that the defendant was a member of the conspiracy.(53) Deliberate avoidance of knowledge does not preclude involvement in the conspiracy.(54)

    4. Overt Act

      The fourth essential element of a federal conspiracy charge is an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.(55) The function of the overt act requirement is to demonstrate that the conspiracy was actually operative, rather than a mere scheme in the minds of the actors.(56) The overt act need not be unlawful,(57) nor need it be the substantive offense charged in the indictment.(58) The defendant need not have committed an overt act: he is chargeable so long as a co-conspirator has committed such an act.(59)

      Under the theory of vicarious liability, the reasonably foreseeable overt acts of one co-conspirator, which are committed in furtherance of the conspiracy, are attributable to the other conspirators.(60) In establishing liability for the conspiracy charge, the circuit courts generally find conspirator liability for acts committed by co-conspirators both prior to, as well as during the defendant's participation.(61) However, a defendant cannot be held criminally liable for substantive offenses committed by others involved in the conspiracy before joining it(62) or after ending participation in the conspiracy.(63)


    Defendants can challenge conspiracy charges by claiming a failure to prove the specific elements of the offense(64) or by contesting the charge on...

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