What you need to know about drug crimes and conspiracy

The word conspiracy often comes up in discussions about drug crimes, but many people are unfamiliar with what the term actually means in this context. In simple every day terms, a conspiracy occurs when a group of people collaborate - or conspire - in a plan to do something harmful or illegal.

Conspiracy basics

In popular culture, references to conspiracy often occur in conversations about alleged cover-ups of controversial historical events such as the Roswell Incident, the moon landing or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. These speculations are referred to as conspiracy theories because they involve claims that groups of powerful individuals are working together - conspiring - to mislead the public about important events. However, the word takes on a somewhat different meaning when a person is charged with criminal conspiracy in a court of law.

In criminal law, the word conspiracy does not typically imply a cover-up. Instead, a criminal conspiracy takes place when a group of two or more people makes a plan to commit a crime and then take a step toward carrying out that plan. That step may itself be a criminal act, but it need not be.

For example, if two people agree to manufacture methamphetamine and then purchase the necessary laboratory equipment and chemicals, they can be charged with conspiracy. This is true even if the purchases themselves were legal, and even if the pair took no further steps to carry out the plan.

State and federal conspiracy charges

The basic concept of criminal conspiracy is consistent across different state and federal laws, but the specific details vary depending on which law is being applied. Drug trafficking and other drug-related offenses can often be prosecuted in either state or federal court, so people arrested for these offenses in Wisconsin may be charged with federal criminal conspiracy.

Wisconsin is different from some other states in that it uses a unilateral approach to conspiracy. This means that a person can be convicted of conspiracy in Wisconsin even if the other individuals involved in the plan did not actually intend to carry it out. So long as the person facing charges intended to follow it through, he or she can be convicted even if the others cannot.

For example, in the drug manufacturing scenario described above, the person who purchased the equipment and chemicals could be charged with conspiracy even if it turns out that the other person thought the plan was a joke and never meant to act on it.

People can also face charges for conspiracy in Wisconsin even if there was no formal or explicit agreement to commit the crime in the first place; an agreement reached through actions or implication alone can be enough to support a charge of criminal conspiracy. Furthermore, it is not necessary for all of the people involved in the plan to know or even be aware of one another.

Not only that, but Wisconsin law provides that a person can be charged with conspiracy even if it turns out that carrying out the criminal plan was physically impossible. Thus, for example, a person could potentially be convicted of conspiring to purchase cocaine even if it turned out that the substance he or she believed to be cocaine was actually powdered sugar. These aspects of Wisconsin's conspiracy law make it easier for prosecutors to convict a person on conspiracy charges than in some other jurisdictions.

What does it mean to be charged with criminal conspiracy?

Whether a person is prosecuted in Wisconsin or in federal court, criminal conspiracy laws are very powerful in a number of ways. As a result, people who are charged with criminal conspiracy can often end up facing consequences that are far more severe than they may have anticipated.

One aspect of criminal conspiracy laws that makes them so powerful is that they apply equally to everyone involved in a criminal undertaking, regardless of each person's specific role. In a prosecution for drug distribution, for example, a person who keeps a lookout during a drug deal can face the same charges as the person who actually makes the transaction - even though his or her role in the crime may appear to be relatively minor.

A related element of conspiracy law is that anyone convicted of conspiracy can be sentenced in the same manner as if he or she had been convicted of the underlying offense. Thus, a person found guilty of conspiracy to manufacture drugs can be sentenced as if he or she had been convicted of actual drug manufacturing, regardless of his or her actual role in the plan, and even if no drugs were ever manufactured.

The legal theory behind criminal conspiracy laws

Lawmakers and legal scholars generally believe that groups of people acting together in a criminal undertaking pose a greater threat to society than an individual acting alone. For example, an organized drug ring is likely to be regarded as more dangerous than a single individual who grows marijuana in his or her home for personal use. Thus, while both scenarios can involve serious legal charges with the potential for prison time, costly fines and other penalties, the consequences are likely to be more severe for someone who participates in a collaborative criminal undertaking than for someone who operates on his or her own.

How a lawyer can help if you are charged with conspiracy

If you are charged with criminal conspiracy, whether in Wisconsin or federal court, it is critical that you seek help from an experienced criminal defense lawyer to help protect your legal rights and your long-term interests.

The law in this area is complicated, and conspiracy cases are rarely cut and dried. An attorney with a deep understanding of the legal issues involved can uncover flaws in the prosecution's case and challenge any evidence that may be used against you unfairly. Contact attorney Stephen M. Govin to listen to your side of the story to find out what legal defenses may be available to help improve your chances of a favorable outcome. Depending on the circumstances, Attorney Govin may be able to negotiate on your behalf to have the charges reduced or dropped altogether. He will also advocate vigorously on your behalf at every stage of trial, sentencing and appeal.