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A conspiracy is an agreement between two or more persons to break the law at some time in the future, and, in some cases, with at least one overt act in furtherance of that agreement. There is no limit on the number participating in the conspiracy and, in most countries, no requirement that any steps have been taken to put the plan into effect. Parties may join "the plot" later and incur joint liability. Criminal law often requires one of the conspirators to take an overt step to accomplish the illegal act to demonstrate the reality of their intention to break the law, whereas in a civil conspiracy, an overt act towards accomplishing the wrongful goal may not be required. Thus, while the etymology of the term, literally "breathing together," holds no connotation of wrongdoing, conspiracies are always viewed as destructive and connected to illegal activity.

The prevalence of real, alleged, and fictional conspiracies reveals a general mistrust in society. Thus, the elimination of such activities depends more on the improvement of social relationships than on legislation or law enforcement.


The word conspiracy is both a legal definition of a crime and a noun denoting a specific group of people intent upon a specific action. The word originates from two Latin roots, con which means “with, together” and spirare “to breath.”

Generally, a conspiracy is defined as an agreement between two or more persons to commit an unlawful act, or to accomplish a lawful purpose by unlawful means. When more than two persons are involved, it is not necessary that they have met each other, or even know of the existence of all the other members of the conspiracy. Liability for the acts of others involved in the conspiracy, however, varies among courts.

Conspiracy can be prosecuted as a crime, or as a tort under civil law. Some countries limit conspiracy to the agreement to commit offenses against the state, whereas statutory law, in some of the U.S. states, limits conspiracy to criminal purposes.

Outside the legal context, the word has developed different connotations in the English lexicon.

Criminal Law

In the United States and in Britain, a criminal conspiracy is defined as an agreement between two or more people to break the law at some moment in time. While other countries do have laws against conspiracy,[1] the U.S. and United Kingdom are the two that have had the most stringent punishments for the longest time, resulting from legal precedents in common law.

At the federal level in the United States, conspiracy is broken down into three types: Conspiracy to defraud the United States, Conspiracy to impede or injure an officer of the United States, and solicitation to commit a crime of violence.

  1. The first offense, Conspiracy to commit an offense or defraud the United States, includes all non-violent, illegal acts against the United States as a country or against the U.S. government. Such examples could include a board of directors conspiring to commit tax fraud against the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), or a group of people who agree to disclose confidential information to the public. All federal "white-collar crimes" fit into this category. The U.S. Code prescribes fines, five years imprisonment, or both as punishment. [2]
  2. The second type of conspiracy, Conspiracy to impede or injure an officer of the United States, deals with any group that would agree to deliberately threaten, manipulate, bribe, or injure any United States official, and effectively hamper or hinder their ability to execute their official duties. An example of this would be drug dealers agreeing to bribe, threaten, or physically injure U.S. Custom agents in order to smuggle drugs into the country. The maximum amount of imprisonment for such a charge is six years, with or without fines. [3].
  3. The third conspiracy by the United States Code is solicitation to commit a crime of violence. Any group that hires, manipulates, or forces another person to commit an act of violence is punishable. An example of this would be a person hired by a crime organization to commit assault or murder. Punishment for this conspiracy charge is a maximum of half the punishment of the crime intended/executed. For example, if the crime was murder, the defendants would be sentenced to half the term of punishment that the murder charge carried. [4]

It should be noted that in most court cases conspiracy is not the sole indictment. Conspiracy is usually added along with a charge for the crime attempted, if it was not fully executed, or for the crime itself, if it was successfully carried out. Hence, most defendants in a conspiracy trial also face separate punishments for the attempted/executed crime, which is the reason that most conspiracy crimes do not carry heavy punishments. Conspiracy charges are frequently used as a prosecution device to supplement other charges in order to secure longer sentences, or as a legal means to indict those involved in criminal activities that have little, if any, evidence against them.

Some statutes in the U.S. take the definition of criminal conspiracy further, requiring that there be intent and an overt act, accompanied by the agreement in order to obtain a conviction. The intention of committing the crime agreed upon and an overt act that, while not necessarily the crime itself, in some way furthers the plans, or hides the crime afterwards, are all considered equal and necessary for a conspiracy to happen. The reason for this dissemination of conspiracy is to avoid the prosecution of words and thoughts alone. Such definitions are not universal. In The United States vs Shabani, 513 U.S. 10 (1994), the Supreme Court left the inclusion of an overt act of furtherance and intent in the criminal code up to the legislature to decide. Hence, there is no one distinct definition of conspiracy, although the essential agreement, which is at the core of all conspiracies, is a common variable throughout all statutes.

Most statutes state that it does not matter if the crime agreed upon is even executed, although the execution, or deliberate attempt, of the crime agreed upon will not be rolled up into the conspiracy charges, but will stand as separate offenses. Conspiracy is merely the planning of such crimes. Further, if the crime, say a murder, is successfully carried out, everyone involved in the conspiracy, not just those who actual performed the murder, are guilty. Conspiracy statues also take into account any members that join the conspiracy after the initial agreement, being as liable as those who originally agreed upon the crime.

A defendant may claim they had renounced the group of conspirators before either the crime was committed or the group was arrested and charged, and therefore that they are innocent. However, in most jurisdictions, such a defense would only be viable if there was proof of “substantial effort to prevent the commission of the conspiratorial plan,” and some statutes only allow the defense if “the commission of the underlying crime was in fact prevented.” [5]

It is also an option for prosecutors, when bringing conspiracy charges, to decline to indict all members of the conspiracy (though their existence may be mentioned in an indictment). Such un-indicted co-conspirators are commonly found when the identities or whereabouts of members of a conspiracy are unknown; or when the prosecution is only concerned with a particular individual among the conspirators. This is common when the target of the indictment is an elected official or an organized crime leader; and the co-conspirators are persons of little or no public importance. More famously, President Richard Nixon was named as an un-indicted co-conspirator by the Watergate special prosecutor, in the event leading up to his eventual resignation.

Conspiracy differs in requirements and punishments from state to state. New York has adopted a unilateral policy on conspiracy, which means that the initial intent of the conspirators to commit a crime is all that matters; any individual’s intention varying from the original at any other time is considered moot. The New York Penal Code lists six different degrees of conspiracy, the most severe being a Class A Felony and is defined as a person over the age of 18 to conspire with at least one individual under the age of 16 to commit a class A felony, which carries a maximum punishment of life in prison. In comparison, the lowest form of conspiracy is considered a Class B misdemeanor and has a maximum sentencing of six months in jail. [6]

California, on the other hand, views a conspiracy as at least two people forming an agreement to commit a crime, and at least one of them performing some act in furtherance of committing the crime, ignoring the idea of intent completely. Each person is punishable in the same manner and to the same extent as is provided for the punishment of the crime itself. [7]

Tort Law

In the law of tort, the legal elements necessary to establish a civil conspiracy are substantially the same as for establishing a criminal conspiracy, i.e. there is an agreement between two or more persons to break the law at some time in the future, or to achieve a lawful aim by unlawful means. The criminal law often requires one of the conspirators to take an overt step to accomplish the illegal act to demonstrate the reality of their intention to break the law, whereas in a civil conspiracy, an overt act towards accomplishing the wrongful goal may not be required.

Any conspiracy lawsuit brought to a Civil Court would require that the plaintiff prove that the conspiracy of the defendants resulted in some form of damage to the defendant, such as monetary, propriety, personal health, or even public reputation. A Civil Court's sole responsibility is to assess the amount of damage sustained, and to accurately award retribution to the injured party. Therefore, a civil conspiracy only becomes a civil legal issue when it does provable damage to another person or party.

Conspiracy in Business Litigation

Business litigation often involves the use of conspiracy lawsuits against two or more corporations. Often joined in the lawsuit as defendants are the officers of the companies and outside accountants, attorneys, and similar fiduciaries.

Such conspiracy cases often take the form of antitrust lawsuits, usually litigated in federal court, where the plaintiff seeks treble damages for overpayments caused by price-fixing above the market rate. The federal Sherman Antitrust Act provides both civil and criminal penalties. Other agreements among businesses and their agents for group boycotts, to monopolize, and to set predatory prices with intent to drive a small competitor out of business, would be actionable. [8]

Conspiracies in violation of the federal securities laws, such as the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, form another area where intense civil and criminal lawsuits occur over the existence or non-existence of an alleged conspiracy. Both the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Department of Justice bring legal actions for conspiracies to violate the securities laws.

For example, a regional bank agreed to pay $115 million through a subsidiary in civil fines and restitution to settle the SEC's allegations of securities fraud. The subsidiary was accused of conspiracy to violate securities laws by transferring $762 million in troubled loans and investments to off-balance-sheet entities in 2001. In that case, the Justice Department deferred prosecution of the regional bank, citing its cooperation in a related investigation. [9]

Similarly, the civil litigation against the tobacco companies to recover health care costs, alleges a conspiracy under the Medical Care Recovery Act, the Medicare Secondary Payer provisions of the Social Security Act, and the civil provisions of United States Code entitled Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations ("RICO") to deceive the American public about the health effects of smoking [10]

Conspiracy in Pop Culture

The notion of conspiracy has become widespread as both a fictional motif and an explanation for real events. Authors and investigators have leveled claims of conspiracies being responsible for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the cover-up of a crashed UFO in the New Mexico desert in 1949, and even have suggested that the Apollo moon landing was a hoax. The majority of these conspiracy theorists draw their conclusions from speculation with little significant evidence to verify their claims, although there are serious investigators who have presented legitimate reports of hidden governmental activities, such as the Watergate cover-up that was perpetuated by members of the Nixon administration.

In movies, television shows, and books, conspiracies have become popular plot points, usually involving a section of the government or a large corporation. For example, the television series The X-Files proposed a massive conspiracy between men of power and extraterrestrials.

Whether claimed to be real or works of fiction, the very fact that conspiracies capture society’s imagination reveals how people view the larger forces around them. Shadowy men in high ranking government or business positions, making self-interested decisions that affect millions of people, and going to any lengths necessary to keep their actions concealed from the public, has become a "pseudo-archetype" in the collective unconscious. Certainly, conspiracies do exist, as has been seen in high-profile corporate scandals. However, vast conspiracies to cover up such monumental events as contact with an alien species or the murder of a President speak more to a general sense of paranoia regarding authority than to reality.


  1. McNicol, Tony. Japan Media Review, July 12, 2006. "Journalists Protest Conspiracy Law"
  2. 18 U.S.C. § 371, 2004.
  3. 18 U.S.C. § 372, 2004.
  4. 18 U.S.C. § 373, 2004.
  5. National Lawyer’s Guild, NY Chapter. A Brief and General Rundown on New York Conspiracy Law
  6. G N.Y. Pen. Code § 3 art. 105.00-105.35, 2004.
  7. Cal. Pen. Code § 182-185, 2005.
  8. U.S. Department of Justice. "Antitrust Enforcement and the Consumer"
  9. "SmartPros Accounting: Articles, CPE and Career Resources." Associated Press, November 29, 2004. "AIG to Pay $126 Million to Settle Two Probes"
  10. U.S. Department of Justice Civil Lawsuit: FAQ "U.S. Department of Justice RICO Lawsuit Against the Cigarette Industry: Background and Frequently Asked Questions".

External Links

All links retrieved March 20, 2017.


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