Conspiracy is the agreement with one or more people to commit a crime. One of the people agreeing to complete the crime needs to commit one act in furtherance of the crime; in other words, someone (anyone who is a participant in the conspiracy) needs to take a step towards completing the crime by doing something which is needed to complete that crime, whatever crime it may be. For example, if John Doe tells Jane Doe that they should rob a liquor store together, using a gun that they can buy off the street from Tom, and they can use a car that they borrow from Tim, and Jane agrees, they have entered into the agreement. Once one of them either borrows the car or buys the gun, a step has been taken and a conspiracy has been sufficiently started hypothetically speaking. Tom and Tim, not knowing the common purpose that John and Jane have, would not be a part of the conspiracy because they would have no intent to help them complete that crime. Someone who associates with members of a conspiracy but does not have the objective of helping complete the crime is not a member of that conspiracy. Whether enough steps have been taken to show a conspiracy is formed is a question of fact for a jury.
A participant need not know all the participants involved in order to be found guilty of conspiracy. Using the example above, assume that James Doe asked John Doe to do the robbery for him and would give him the money to buy the gun and borrow the car. Jane would have no idea that James had asked John to commit this crime and James may not know that Jane was a part of John’s plan. This becomes important because if Jane were the one to commit the step in furtherance of the conspiracy and is then caught, all three are charged together, James could not claim that he was not part of the conspiracy because he does not even know Jane and never entered into a common plan or scheme with her. They would all still be charged together.
One of the main defenses to conspiracy is withdrawal from the conspiracy. If while steps are being taken to complete the crime one person decides they are no longer a part of the conspiracy and do not want to be a part of the crime to be completed, and withdraws before anyone is arrested or caught they cannot be convicted of conspiracy. Usually if the crime is completed, it becomes impossible for the person to withdraw but still may be possible depending on the circumstances.
Whether a withdrawal is actually effectuated is a fact question for a jury. Again going to the previous example, let’s say that James on finding out that Jane is involved no longer wants to be a part of the plan and tells John he wants his money back that he gave him to buy the gun and no longer wants the robbery committed. This might be considered to be a withdrawal even if John refuses to return James’s money. If however the police show up at John’s house in order to arrest him and James sees the police and yells out “I WITHDRAW”, a jury would not likely find that to be an effective withdrawal.
One quirk to remember about conspiracy is what is known as Wharton’s rule. Basically, if two people are already necessary to complete a specific crime, and there is no element of the conspiracy that is not present in the crime meant to be completed, then the persons involved cannot be convicted of both conspiracy and the crime itself.
Elements, crimes and defenses vary from state to state and within the federal system. If you or someone you know is charged with any crime, as always, you should consult a local attorney, licensed to practice in your jurisdiction and preferably one practicing only criminal law. You can always look for your local criminal attorney at http://www.crimelawyers.org.