Criminal conspiracy charges are widely misunderstood. In federal court, they frequently appear alongside other charges in indictments involving alleged drug trafficking networks.

Recently, a Southern California man was convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine. These charges carry a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison, and could carry as much as life in prison and a $10 million fine. Sentencing is scheduled for October.

According to federal prosecutors, 43 kilograms of cocaine was discovered in an apparently abandoned storage unit that was purchased at auction. Investigators found the man and his co-conspirators had rented the unit on the same day that a large shipment of cocaine arrived in the area. Police said they found the fingerprints of the man and one of his co-conspirators on items inside the unit.

Prosecutors can charge criminal conspiracy when two or more people agree to commit a crime, then take some action toward its completion. The action they take does not have to be a crime on its own, and the underlying crime need not ever be completed.

For example, three people can plan to sell illegal drugs. They pool their money together to buy the drugs and begin renting an apartment where they will keep the drugs. Therefore, they made an agreement to commit a crime, and then they took an action toward completing the crime. Technically, all three could be charged with conspiracy to sell illegal drugs even if they never actually possessed the drugs.

In this example, it is unlikely that this prosecution would get very far without evidence that the defendants actually possessed the drugs. If the police searched the apartment and discovered a large stash of drugs in the possession of the three people, prosecutors might charge them with possession with intent to distribute. Conspiracy charges allow prosecutors some room to convict defendants when they can’t prove an element of a more serious crime.

That said, federal criminal conspiracy charges can be extremely serious. They have the potential to send people to prison for the rest of their lives. People who are accused of conspiracy should seek out help from a criminal defense attorney with experience defending people in cases like theirs.