Understanding Criminal Conspiracy

A crime that is often misunderstood is conspiracy. Conspiracy is what the law refers to as an inchoate offense. An inchoate offense is one that pertains to the steps taken toward the commission of a crime with the step itself, conspiracy for instance, being serious enough to constitute a crime itself. There are three types of inchoate offenses: conspiracy, solicitation, and attempt.

A person is guilty of conspiracy when he acts with another person with the intent to commit a crime. To be guilty of conspiracy the prosecution must prove that the person agreed with another to engage in conduct which constituted a crime or attempted to engage in conduct. Conspiracy is also committed if a person agrees to aid another in committing or planning to commit a crime.

To prove conspiracy the prosecution must establish (1), an agreement to commit a crime or the providing of aid to commit a crime, (2),  a shared criminal intent and (3), an overt act (open and observable) done in furtherance of the conspiracy. If you are charged with conspiracy your attorney should focus on the following issues: the Agreement; the number of co-conspirators; the overt act; the duration; the sufficiency of evidence; renunciation; and the merger of offenses.

With regards to the issue of Agreement the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was an Agreement among the co-conspirators. To prove Agreement the Commonwealth does not need to show an explicit or formal understanding among the co-conspirators. The Commonwealth must, however, show more than a mere association. A Court (judge or jury) can find conspiracy inferentially through the defendant’s relation, conduct, or circumstances of the parties. It’s very important to keep in mind that mere association or presence at the scene of the crime is insufficient to establish conspiracy. This is a key concept.

With regards to co-conspirators it is important to understand that one defendant can be convicted of conspiracy even if his alleged co-conspirator is acquitted later at a separate trial. It is not necessary that two defendants be tried together in order to convict a person of conspiracy. Even if the defendants are tried at the same trial it is still possible to find one guilty, the other not guilty, and still convict the guilty person of conspiracy. With regards to an overt act you must understand that it doesn’t need to be crime itself but only an action that furthers completion of a crime or the attempt to complete a crime. Again, it is important that your attorney focus on the circumstances surrounding the actions of the individual accused of the conspiracy. Quite often the prosecution will erroneously ask the court to find conspiracy based on the mere presence of the person at the scene of the crime without any more evidence. You can’t be found guilty by mere association!

If you are accused as a conspirator you are subject to the same penalty as the principal actor (robbery, burglary, etc.). Much like other states, Pennsylvania does allow a person to be charged with conspiracy along with the principal act and the two charges do not merge for the purposes of sentencing. Merger is a legal concept that basically means that a person cannot be sentenced to an additional penalty (jail time or probation) for a crime that would be considered a lesser included offense of a more serious crime. For instance, robbery merges with theft because both are considered unlawful taking provided that the two crimes derived from the same incident. Because there is no merger you are subject to a double penalty. While judges can run sentences concurrently (at the same time) there is no prohibition against them running sentences for the two crimes consecutively (one after another). A conspiracy charge is serious and it’s important that your attorney properly prepare a defense if you are charged with it.