What Is Conspiracy in California?

According to California Penal Code § 182, conspiracy in California involves two or more people agreeing to commit a crime and then actually acting to advance that agreement. Further, at least one act must take place in California.

It’s important to know that you are not guilty of conspiracy if you simply accompany or associate with members of a conspiracy. Similarly, if you do not intend to commit the act or offense, then you should not be found guilty of conspiracy.

Members of a conspiracy do not have to personally know the identity and roles of all other members of the conspiracy. The focus is on whether you did agree to commit a crime.

Is Criminal Conspiracy a Misdemeanor Crime or a Felony Crime?

A violation of California Penal Code § 182 is typically a felony crime in California, which is punished by whatever penalty the underlying felony carries. Thus, if you are convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, you will face a minimum prison sentence for murder.

However, a conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor offense is called a “wobbler” in California. That means it can be charged as either a misdemeanor crime or a felony. Misdemeanor crimes typically result in jail time and substantial fines.

What Are the Elements of Conspiracy Charges?

Criminal conspiracy requires the prosecution to prove the following elements of the crime:

  1. You agreed with another person or persons to commit a crime
  2. One of the parties took an “overt act” to further or advance the agreement
  3. At least one of the overt acts took place in California.

If even one of these elements is false, you should not be convicted of criminal conspiracy in California.

An Agreement to Commit a Crime

The agreement element of criminal conspiracy requires that the parties came to a detailed or formal agreement. However, it does not have to be written in a contract. It may be inferred from the defendant’s conduct if there was a common purpose to commit a crime.

For example, if two people were dressed in black and sneaking around a neighborhood testing car doors to see if they would open, their conduct would be enough to infer an agreement to commit a theft crime.

What Is an Overt Act?

An “overt act” is an act that advances the crime. The act must be completed after the agreement has been made and in addition to the plan to commit the crime.

Some examples of an overt act may include:

  • Buying a weapon
  • Renting a getaway car
  • Giving a signal to another person

The overt act does not have to be the actual crime itself.

What Are the Penalties for Criminal Conspiracy?

In California, criminal conspiracy penalties typically amount to the same consequences as the underlying crime. For example, if you conspire to commit rape, you would be assessed the same penalties as a rape conviction. Thus, if the underlying crime is a felony, you will be assessed felony penalties.

However, it’s essential to know that conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor crime is a “wobbler.” That means it could be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. You may face more time in jail or prison than would result from the underlying crime.

California penalties for felony and misdemeanor conspiracy include:

  • Incarceration
  • Significant fines

Your reputation may be tarnished, and you may have problems obtaining work and financial aid. Your gun rights may be affected. If you are an immigrant, your status in this country may also be at risk.

Working with a conspiracy attorney who can negotiate the lowest punishment possible with the prosecution is essential. Your lawyer may even be able to get your charges thrown out.

When Does Criminal Conspiracy Become a Federal Offense?

Conspiracy could be charged as a federal offense if you violate a federal law or defraud the United States. Also, it may be a federal crime if it occurs on federal property or across state lines.

For example, if Pam and Angela conspire to commit wire fraud involving someone who lives in another state, they may be charged with a federal conspiracy crime.

What are the Penalties for Federal Criminal Conspiracy?

The penalty for federal felony criminal conspiracy includes a maximum punishment of not more than five years in federal prison and up to $250,000 in fines.

For conspiracy to commit a federal misdemeanor, the maximum punishment would not exceed the maximum punishment for the underlying misdemeanor crime.

Common Defenses Used in Criminal Conspiracy Cases

The easiest way to challenge criminal conspiracy charges is to discredit the existence of one or both of the following:

  • An agreement to commit a crime
  • The overt action

Additionally, under California conspiracy law, a person may withdraw from the action before the criminal act is taken and be found not guilty. Withdrawal requires communication of the desire to end the agreement before the individual commits an overt act. It is also beneficial if the individual reports the incident to the police, especially if others agree to commit the crime.

There Was No Agreement

There can be no conviction of conspiracy if there was no agreement to commit a crime. Sometimes, an individual is in the wrong place at the wrong time or with the wrong people.

For example, if Susan and Frank go into a store to purchase snacks, but Frank pulls a gun without Susan knowing he had one, then she should not be charged with conspiracy. Susan did not know Frank was going to commit a criminal act, and she didn’t agree to participate in the crime.

There Was No Overt Act

A person can only be convicted of conspiracy to commit a crime if they commit an overt act towards furthering that crime. You cannot be convicted if there was simply a plan to commit a crime. Thus, if you did not take any actions toward committing the crime, then you can use the defense that there was no overt act.