18 U.S.C. § 371 - Conspiracy to Defraud the United States
18 U.S.C. 371 is the statute that defines a federal conspiracy offense but can be filed by prosecutors when no crime was committed. Suppose an underlying crime was committed. In that case, conspiracy charges are often charged along with it, which allows federal prosecutors to enhance sentencing or give them a better chance of obtaining a conviction.
Conspiracy charges cover a broad range of criminal conduct. 18 U.S.C. 371 makes it a federal crime for two or more people to conspire to commit any offense or defraud the United States or any agency for any purpose. Further, at least one person engaged in the conspiracy must act in a way that furthers it, such as purchasing a weapon to commit the crime.
Notably, to “defraud” the United States means to obstruct or impair any government department's efficiency, destroy its operation, and cheat the government out of money or property.
A typical example of defrauding the government includes engaging in dishonest practices regarding government programs. Suppose you engage in a conspiracy to commit an offense. In that case, you could also be charged with crimes such as aiding and abetting or soliciting.
Prosecutors do not have to prove there was any written agreement between the conspirators; instead, they only have to prove they worked together to commit a federal offense. This means a “conspiracy” is an agreement crime, but the statute does not precisely say how it's wrong.
Federal Conspiracy Charges - Defined
18 U.S.C. 371 defines conspiracy to commit an offense or defraud the United States as follows: “If two or more persons conspire either to commit any crime against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose, and one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy, each shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
If, however, the offense, the commission of which is the object of the conspiracy, is a misdemeanor only, the punishment for such conspiracy shall not exceed the maximum penalty provided for such misdemeanor.”
As noted, a conspiracy requires at least two or more (co-conspirators) to do something to accomplish the underlying goal, called an “overt act” or a “direct step.”
If you conduct surveillance on a location where you plan to commit a crime, that would be considered an overt act, but just talking about it is not enough. Suppose one conspirator does a required act. In that case, all co-conspirators become guilty of the conspiracy crime.
What Is Considered a “Conspiracy” Under Federal Law?
Conspiracy is not in and of itself a crime. Instead, conspiracy is a theory that broadens the government's ability to go after people for federal crimes. The best example that can be used when you're trying to explain the conspiracy theory and the government is drug offenses.
For example, in drug cases, you often see one person or a group of people who are the head of a drug organization who make all the money. They're using other people to be able to operate and move drugs and make money.
Someone might be given some drugs that were manufactured, grown, or other types of drugs, and all they have to do is move the drugs from one place to another, and they're going to get paid a couple of thousand dollars.
Thus, some standards must be satisfied to qualify as conspiracy under 18 U.S.C. 371, such as the following:
- Two or more people must conspire, or agree, to commit a federal crime;
- One or more of these conspirators must take an overt act toward completing the crime they agreed to commit.
- The person was aware that the plan was illegal.
These above factors must be met to be prosecuted as a criminal conspiracy. As noted, suppose two people talk openly about committing a crime to defraud the United States. In that case, prosecutors do not have enough evidence to file conspiracy charges unless one of them takes a direct step to commit the crime.
What Are Other Statutes Related to Conspiracy?
As noted, 18 U.S.C. 371 is the general statute for federal conspiracy. There are other specific statutes related to a conspiracy, such as the following:
- 18 U.S.C. 241 — Conspiracy against rights;
- 18 U.S.C. 286 — Conspiracy to defraud concerning claims
- 18 U.S.C. 372 — Conspiracy to impede or injure an officer;
- 18 U.S.C. 757 — Aiding prisoners of war or enemy aliens;
- 18 U.S.C. 794 — Gathering or delivering defense information to assist a foreign government;
- 21 U.S.C. 846 — Attempt and conspiracy;
- 18 U.S.C. 956 — Conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim, or injure persons or damage property in a foreign country;
- 18 U.S.C. 1117 — Conspiracy to murder;
- 18 U.S.C. 1201(c) — Conspiracy to kidnap;
- 18 U.S.C. 1349 — Conspiracy to commit fraud;
- 18 U.S.C. 1962(d) — Conspiracy to racketeer:
- 18 U.S.C. 2384 — Seditious conspiracy;
- 18 U.S.C. 2271 — Destroying a boat to defraud an insurance company;
- 18 U.S.C. 2388 — Interfering with armed forces during war.
What Are the Most Common Conspiracy Offenses?
The most common underlying federal crimes where 18 U.S.C. 371 conspiracy could apply include the following:
- 18 U.S.C. 1001 – False statements;
- 18 U.S.C. 1961 - Racketeering (RICO);
- 21 U.S.C. 841 - Drug trafficking;
- 18 U.S.C. 1956 - Money laundering;
- 18 U.S.C. 2320 – Counterfeit goods;
- 18 U.S.C. 471 – Counterfeit currency;
- 18 U.S.C. 1347 - Healthcare fraud;
- 18 U.S.C. 1343 - Wire fraud;
- 18 U.S.C. 1341 - Mail fraud;
- 18 U.S.C. 1344 - Bank fraud;
- 18 U.S.C. 641 – Embezzlement;
- 18 U.S.C. 1348 - Securities fraud.
What Are the Penalties for 18 U.S.C. 371?
Suppose you are convicted of 18 U.S.C. 371 conspiracy charges. The penalties will depend on the underlying offense and could include the following:
- If the underlying offense is a misdemeanor, the penalties cannot exceed the maximum punishment which that misdemeanor would carry;
- If the underlying offense is a felony, you face up to five years in the Federal Bureau of Prisons and a fine of up to $250,000, but this could increase based on the severity of the underlying offense;
- If the conspiracy was an organization, the fine increases to $500,000;
Notably, most underlying offenses for criminal conspiracy cases prosecuted at the federal level are felonies. Any misdemeanors usually are charged in a state court.
What Are the Defenses for 18 U.S.C. 371?
Suppose you were indicted for 18 U.S.C. 371 conspiracy. In that case, our federal criminal defense attorneys could use various strategies to obtain the best possible outcome, as discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue that there was no agreement to engage in a conspiracy. Suppose you never made a deal with another person to commit a crime. In that case, no scheme could have been committed.
Likewise, perhaps we can argue that you did not willfully join the agreement to engage in the conspiracy. A forced understanding made under duress or threat or a mere presence at the crime scene is insufficient for a conviction.
Perhaps we can argue that no overt act was taken. Since there is no rigid definition of an “overt act,” it's subjective. Maybe we can say you did not meet the level of an overt act.
Perhaps we can argue that there was no intent to follow through with the crime, and it does not rise to the standard of a criminal conspiracy. Effective defense of federal conspiracy charges often makes federal prosecutors prove every element of the conspiracy's definition beyond a reasonable doubt.
Sometimes, we can investigate and present evidence in pretrial motions, plea bargaining, or at a federal trial. Perhaps we can create reasonable, which will give you the best chance of a favorable outcome.
Perhaps we can negotiate a favorable plea agreement if your guilt of a conspiracy is not in doubt. Contact us for a free case evaluation via phone or fill out the contact form. The Hedding Law Firm has offices in Los Angeles, CA.