With all of the talk about conspiracy and collusion in the news recently, now is a good time to review the legal meaning of conspiracy. This is a term that can come up in a lot of federal prosecutions involving white-collar crime, drug trafficking or any other alleged criminal enterprise that involves two or more defendants.

Lawyers often talk about criminal charges in terms of elements. To sustain a certain charge, the prosecutors need to show that all the elements of that charge are satisfied.

For a charge of criminal conspiracy, there are only two elements. The first is an agreement between two or more people to carry out an act they know is illegal. The second is some action toward completing that illegal action.

In a simple example, Adam and Zelda agree to rob a bank. This meets the first element. The duo then conduct a preliminary visit the bank and Zelda buys a pair of ski masks for her and Adam to wear during the robbery. This meets the second element. Note that in this example, Adam and Zelda technically do not need to actually carry out the robbery before they can be charged in a criminal conspiracy.

One of the key questions in any criminal trial for conspiracy charges involves the intent of the defendants. The defendants don’t necessarily have to sign a written agreement or verbally acknowledge that they intend to commit a crime, but they do have to signal their intent to agree and their intent to carry through with their plans. They also have to make an overt act toward completing the act.

In the above example, Adam could tell Zelda that he intended to rob the bank, but Zelda only becomes part of a conspiracy when she agrees to join him and they make an overt act toward actually carrying out the robbery. If Adam and Zelda merely talked about the bank robbery and discussed ways they might do it without actually making an overt act, the conspiracy charge cannot stand.

Because conspiracy charges do not require the crime to be completed, they can be slippery. Prosecutors sometimes use conspiracy charges to pressure defendants to cooperate. Sometimes, people who were low in the hierarchy of a conspiracy can be held accountable while people higher in the chain of command go free. It’s important for people accused of criminal conspiracy to get help from a criminal defense attorney.