Section 2.3: Conspiracy

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

The crime of conspiracy is basically a “partnership in crime.” Imagine you and a friend decide to rob a store and you both agree to meet later to carry out the plan. Even if you don’t actually rob the store, the mere act of planning it together can get you in legal trouble for conspiracy.

In essence, conspiracy is an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime, combined with the intention to actually follow through. Unlike other crimes, where the action itself is illegal, conspiracy is unique because it criminalizes the planning stage. Sometimes, taking one more step toward committing the crime—called an “overt act”—is also required to be found guilty.

Harm the Legislature Seeks to Prevent

Legislatures aim to nip crime in the bud by criminalizing conspiracy. This means that lawmakers want to prevent crimes from happening in the first place by making it illegal to even plan them. Stopping people at the planning stage can deter more serious offenses from being committed later on.

In addition to prevention, conspiracy laws serve another purpose: they tackle the group dynamics that make crimes more likely to happen and escalate. When people work together, their collective skills and confidence can make them more dangerous than individuals acting alone. These laws also allow authorities to intervene when criminal organizations or gangs are forming, thereby disrupting activities that could have wide-reaching negative impacts on communities.

Furthermore, conspiracy charges can serve as an added tool in the prosecution of other crimes. For instance, if the primary charge falls apart, a conspiracy charge may still hold. This creates a legal safety net that helps authorities hold wrongdoers accountable.

Classification of Conspiracy

Most legal codes classify conspiracy as an “inchoate” crime. Inchoate crimes are incomplete crimes that were stopped before they could fully occur. In many jurisdictions, conspiracy can be a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the severity of the crime that was being planned. Penalties often include imprisonment, fines, or both.

Conspiracy is a versatile charge that can be connected to a wide variety of criminal categories. When people conspire to commit murder, it is a crime against persons. If they conspire to steal or defraud, it falls under crimes against property. If the conspiracy involves plans to commit sexual assault, it is categorized as a sexual crime. Essentially, conspiracy serves as an umbrella that covers a multitude of offenses, making it an important tool for law enforcement agencies.

History of the Offense of Conspiracy

The notion of conspiracy has a long and complex history, tracing back to ancient legal codes like the Roman “Lex Cornelia de Sicariis et Veneficis,” which criminalized plots to commit murder and other serious offenses. The concept was later adapted into English Common Law. The legal scholar Sir William Blackstone discussed conspiracy in his influential work “Commentaries on the Laws of England” (1765-1769). According to Blackstone, conspiracy was originally a “more lax and indeterminate term,” but it had evolved into an agreement “to do an unlawful act” or a lawful act “by unlawful means” (Blackstone, 1769).

In the United States, conspiracy became an especially potent charge due to its utility in tackling organized crime, particularly in the Prohibition era and beyond. Over time, the requirements for proving conspiracy have been refined to include elements like “mens rea” (guilty mind) and sometimes an “overt act.”

The crime has always sparked debate over its potential for abuse. Critics argue that the broad nature of conspiracy makes it possible to ensnare individuals who may not have fully committed to carrying out a crime, thereby posing ethical concerns about the justice system.

Overview of MPC Definition

The Modern Penal Code (MPC) gives a comprehensive definition of the crime of conspiracy. According to MPC Section 5.03, conspiracy is when a person, “with the purpose of promoting or facilitating the commission of an offense,” agrees with someone else that they will engage in conduct constituting that offense, or aid one another in planning or committing it. Importantly, an “overt act” in pursuit of the conspiracy must often be demonstrated for a conspiracy charge to stick (MPC § 5.03(5)).

For example, if you and a friend agree to rob a bank, and you buy a mask to disguise yourself, the act of purchasing the mask could serve as the overt act required for a conspiracy charge. The MPC also introduces the concept of “renunciation,” which is a defense to a conspiracy charge if a person voluntarily and completely gives up their criminal intentions (MPC § 5.03(6)).

Defenses Mentioned in the Penal Code

The MPC specifically outlines a defense known as “renunciation.” According to Section 5.03(6), a defendant can avoid conviction if they can prove they “thwarted the success of the conspiracy, under circumstances manifesting a complete and voluntary renunciation of his criminal purpose.”

In simpler terms, if you planned to commit a crime but then decided to completely give up on the idea and took steps to prevent it from happening, you could escape a conspiracy charge. However, the renunciation must be complete and voluntary for this defense to be valid. It can’t be something done because you feared you were about to get caught.

The Pinkerton Rule

In the realm of conspiracy law, the Pinkerton Rule holds a crucial position, especially in federal cases. Originating from the landmark Supreme Court case of Pinkerton v. United States in 1946, this doctrine states that a conspirator can be held liable for crimes committed by other conspirators if those crimes were committed in furtherance of the conspiracy and were reasonably foreseeable consequences of the agreement. Essentially, even if you didn’t directly participate in the additional crimes, you could still be legally responsible for them under the Pinkerton Rule.

Implications of the Pinkerton Rule

The Pinkerton Rule significantly broadens the scope of criminal liability in conspiracy cases. It serves as a potent tool for prosecutors because it allows them to hold each member of a conspiracy accountable for the actions taken by any other member, as long as those actions were a foreseeable outcome of the initial conspiracy. For instance, if you were part of a conspiracy to rob a bank and your co-conspirator unexpectedly commits murder during the robbery, you could also be charged with that murder under the Pinkerton Rule, provided it was a foreseeable consequence of the conspiracy to rob the bank.

Criticism and Controversy

While the Pinkerton Rule has been lauded for its effectiveness in combating criminal enterprises and ensuring accountability, it has also attracted substantial criticism. Legal scholars and advocates argue that the rule may extend liability too far, ensnaring individuals who had minimal involvement in the conspiracy or had no knowledge of the scope of the planned criminal activities. This has sparked ongoing debates about fairness, proportionality, and the potential for abuse.

By understanding the Pinkerton Rule, one can better grasp the multi-layered nature of conspiracy law, especially the extent to which liability can be assigned. Given its significant implications, the Pinkerton Rule serves as an essential concept for anyone looking to fully comprehend the complexities of conspiracy charges.

Summary List of Elements

  1. Mens Rea (Guilty Mind): The person must have intended to commit the crime or assist in its commission.
  2. Actus Reus (Guilty Act): There must be an agreement between two or more persons. Sometimes an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy is also required.
  3. Concurrence: The intent and the act must occur together; the individual must intend to agree and then actually agree.
Modification History

File Created:  07/12/2018

Last Modified:  09/13/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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