What is Federal Criminal Conspiracy? 18 U.S. Code § 371

Federal Conspiracy Charges

Under 18 U.S. Code § 371, it is a felony offense when two or more individuals enter into an agreement to directly commit a crime against the United States government or to defraud or obstruct lawful government functions through deceitful means. This statute provides prosecutors broad latitude.

The conspiracy element alone – the meeting of minds to pursue unlawful objectives – can trigger charges, even if the underlying offense was never accomplished. Evidence of the illegal agreement, coupled with steps taken to advance the conspiracy’s objectives, can be enough to land you in hot water, facing major penalties.

18 U.S.C. § 371 – Conspiracy to Defraud the United States

The federal criminal conspiracy statute (18 U.S.C. § 371) makes it illegal for two or more people to conspire either to commit an offense against the United States or to defraud the United States or any federal agency.

The “defraud clause” prohibits conspiracies aimed at obstructing, impairing, or defeating the lawful functions of the federal government through dishonest means.

To convict under the defraud clause, the government must prove:

  • 1) an agreement between two or more people to defraud the United States
  • 2) criminal intent to carry out the agreement, and
  • 3) an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy

Fraud does not necessarily involve monetary or property loss but must aim to impair legitimate government operations through deceit or dishonest conduct.

The Supreme Court has broadly defined “defraud” as a conspiracy that is calculated to obstruct or impair the efficiency and accuracy of government operations through misrepresentations or underhanded methods that defeat the lawful purposes of the federal government.

Common Examples of Federal Conspiracy Charges

The broad language of the federal conspiracy statute has allowed prosecutors to bring charges in a wide variety of circumstances where the alleged conspiracy aimed to obstruct or impair government operations through dishonest means.

Some common examples include:

Fraud Against Federal Programs

Conspiracies to defraud programs like Medicare, federal student loan programs, military contracts, etc., by submitting false claims or documentation.

Tax/Bankruptcy Fraud Conspiracies

Schemes conspiring to defraud the IRS through tax evasion or the bankruptcy courts through concealment of assets.

Public Corruption Conspiracies

Bribery schemes where public officials conspire with others to be influenced in their official duties through kickbacks or favors.

Environmental/Regulation Conspiracies

Conspiracies to circumvent environmental laws, workplace safety regulations, or inspection/testing requirements through false reporting or coverups.

Procurement/Contracting Fraud

Bid-rigging conspiracies that interfere with the government’s ability to receive competitive pricing on contracts.

In essence, any conspiracy that relies on deceit, trickery, or dishonest conduct aimed at obstructing legitimate federal operations can potentially constitute a violation of §371 – even if no actual financial loss occurs.

Penalties for Federal Conspiracy Convictions

The potential penalties for a federal conspiracy conviction depend on the underlying crime that was the object of the conspiracy. Under the general conspiracy statute, 18 U.S.C. § 371, the maximum penalty for conspiring to commit a felony offense is five years in federal prison and potential fines.

However, many federal conspiracy charges tie the penalties directly to the substantive crime that was the goal of the conspiracy. In these cases, the penalties mirror what the sentence would be had the crime actually been completed successfully.

For example, in a conspiracy to commit drug trafficking, the potential prison sentence is the same lengthy-term one would face for the underlying drug crime itself. The same goes for conspiracies involving firearms offenses, money laundering, racketeering, and many other federal crimes.

If the object of the conspiracy was a misdemeanor offense, the maximum penalty is the same as for that misdemeanor. However, misdemeanors can still carry potential jail time and fines.

Defending Against Federal Conspiracy Allegations

Defending against conspiracy allegations often hinges on poking holes in the key elements of the charge – the agreement, criminal intent, or overt acts.

Effective strategies may include:

  • Lack of Agreement — Arguing no actual agreement or “meeting of the minds” existed to commit the alleged unlawful objective. Mere association is not enough.
  • No Criminal Intent — Showing the defendant lacked the required guilty mindset and specific intent to violate the law or defraud authorities. Mere knowledge of a crime is insufficient.
  • Withdrawal — Providing evidence the defendant withdrew from and revoked their participation in the conspiracy before it was underway.
  • Entrapment — Claiming law enforcement tactics induced or coerced the defendant’s involvement in the conspiracy when they were not predisposed to commit the crime.

By dismantling the prosecution’s evidence of an intentional agreement and voluntary participation, a skilled defense can create reasonable doubt around conspiracy charges.

Were You Charged With Criminal Conspiracy?

If you were charged with criminal conspiracy by federal prosecutors, you need an experienced legal team to protect your rights and interests. At Whalen Law Office in Frisco, our defense attorneys provide comprehensive counsel for those facing conspiracy allegations.

Our firm has deep knowledge in dismantling conspiracy cases by challenging key elements like the existence of an agreement, criminal intent, and overt acts. We examine whether you lacked full understanding of the conspiracy’s unlawful objectives or withdrew involvement before any crimes occurred. When warranted, we’ll raise issues of entrapment by overzealous law enforcement tactics.

No matter what form of conspiracy you were charged with – healthcare fraud, drug conspiracies, public corruption schemes, or otherwise – you can depend on Whalen Law Office’s legal team to strategically develop a strong defense tailored to your situation.

Don’t let federal conspiracy charges derail your future. Contact Whalen Law Office today to arrange a private case evaluation with one of our defense attorneys. The sooner we can get to work, the better we can safeguard your interests.

Author Bio

James P. Whalen

James P. Whalen is the managing attorney and founder of Whalen Law Office, a Texas criminal defense firm offering personalized legal representation for various federal criminal charges. With a commitment to providing comfort and guidance during challenging times, Mr. Whalen serves as both an attorney and counselor to his clients, helping them navigate their cases while striving to restore normalcy to their lives.

In an inherently unbalanced criminal justice system, Mr. Whalen takes on cases with unwavering dedication. With decades of legal experience, he offers representation across various criminal charges, including white-collar crimes, violent crimes, drug charges, and more. Mr. Whalen’s numerous accolades, including Super Lawyer recognition and board certification in Criminal Appellate Law and Criminal Law, reflect his unwavering commitment to ethical and high-quality legal representation.

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