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Federal crimes: what is conspiracy under federal law?

Most people in Massachusetts understand that a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more people to engage in criminal conduct. But what, exactly, is a federal conspiracy? The answer is both simple and complex.

The United States Criminal Code states that "If two or more persons conspire either to commit any offense against the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose, and one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy," each member of the conspiracy shall be imprisoned for not more than five years. Oddly, the central concept of the statute -- conspiracy -- is not defined. Other federal statutes define a conspiracy with respect to specific crimes in much the same way.

Despite its vagueness, courts have had little trouble arriving at a meaning for "conspiracy." The Supreme Court has ruled that "When Congress uses well-settled terminology of criminal law, its words are presumed to have their ordinary meaning and definition." In other words, "conspiracy" means an agreement between two or more persons to commit a criminal act. A conspiracy becomes a federal conspiracy when the object of the conspirators is an action that violates one or more federal criminal statutes. An agreement to defraud the Government becomes a conspiracy even if no specific statute defines the anticipated conduct as fraudulent.

The elements of agreement and commission of an overt act can sometimes be difficult to prove. For example, an agreement between a federal agent and a conspirator is not an agreement within the meaning of the statute. The act itself need not be a crime if its commission furthers the conspirators' criminal intent.

Federal crimes, such as conspiracy, may be more complex than they appear at first glance. Those charged with such crimes should make sure they understand their legal options, so they can make sound choices in their defense.

Source: FindLaw, "18 U.S.C. ยง 371 - U.S. Code," accessed Jan. 20, 2018

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