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Conspiracy and When It’s a Crime

Brian J Smith June 12, 2018

When does idle chatter become criminal conspiracy?

You might want to overthrow the government and install yourself as king. You could even discuss your plans for doing so with your brother-in-law and enlist his help, but have you taken part in a criminal conspiracy?

Let’s start by breaking it down. A criminal conspiracy is a plan devised by two or more people to commit one or more unlawful acts and then the actions taken to advance that plan.

Those actions don’t have to be illegal, in and of themselves. For instance, you and your partners could be convicted on conspiracy counts for taking pictures of national monuments if a jury concludes that those actions were part of your pre-planning of a terroristic bombing of those locations.

Conspiracy is usually charged as a felony, whether in state or federal court, and whether or not the crime actually occurred. The exception might be if the planned crime wasn’t a felony, in which case you might face misdemeanor charges of conspiracy.

The key is that your activities go beyond idle conversation. Sitting around rambling about overthrowing the government won’t get you in trouble.

Similarly, you and members of your family might grumble about torching the abandoned eyesore across the street. But until you buy gasoline and assign tasks (one of you is set to break in, splash gasoline and drop a match while others keep watch and distract your neighbors) no conspiracy has taken place.

Keep in mind, you don’t have to light a single match to conspire—just make concrete plans together to do so. You can even conspire without calling it that. Criminal conspiracy can be an implicit agreement rather than one that’s explicitly spelled out. If you’re making concrete plans to commit a crime together, you can be charged with being a co-conspirator even if you don’t think of what you’re doing as advancing a conspiracy.

It doesn’t mean you’re automatically part of the conspiracy just because conversations are going on around you. If you’re drinking beer with a couple idiot friends and they start talking about knocking off a liquor store, but you’re not taking part in the planning, and won’t partake of the crime or the reward, you’re not part of the conspiracy.

There can be a great deal of gray area in the legal definition, though. For instance, teenagers who have been charged with conspiracy for planning school shootings have argued that they were only acting out fantasy attacks. When you consider the flights of imagination the young can go on, the argument doesn’t sound so unrealistic. But the issue might be left to a jury to decide.