Conspiracy Research Paper

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The crime of conspiracy is traditionally defined as an agreement between two or more persons, entered into for the purpose of committing an unlawful act. At first carefully delimited in scope, conspiracy evolved through a long and tortuous history into a tool employed against dangerous group activity of any sort. The twentieth century in particular has witnessed an expansion of conspiracy law in the face of modern organized crime, complex business arrangements in restraint of trade, and subversive political activity. At the same time, indiscriminate conspiracy prosecutions have sparked great controversy, not only because the vagueness of the concept of agreement and the difficulty in proving it frequently result in convictions with only a tenuous basis for criminal liability, but also because conspiracy law involves a number of extensions of traditional criminal law doctrines. The principal extensions are the following:

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  1. Conspiracy criminalizes an agreement to commit a crime, even though an attempt conviction would not be permitted because of the highly preparatory nature of the act.
  2. Although conspiracy is now generally limited in most jurisdictions to agreements to commit statutorily defined crimes, traditionally persons agreeing to commit tortious acts, or indeed any acts resulting in ‘‘prejudice to the general welfare,’’ could be held liable for conspiracy.
  3. All conspirators are liable for crimes committed in furtherance of the conspiracy by any member of the group, regardless of whether liability would be established by the law of complicity.
  4. Contrary to the usual rule that an attempt to commit a crime merges with the completed offense, conspirators may be tried and punished for both the conspiracy and the completed crime.
  5. Special procedural rules designed to facilitate conspiracy prosecutions can prejudice the rights of defendants. For example, all conspirators may be joined for trial, with resultant danger of confusion of issues and of guilt by association; and rules of evidence are loosened to alleviate the difficulties of proving the existence of a clandestine agreement.

In order better to understand and evaluate these doctrines, it is necessary to examine the elements of the crime of conspiracy. Like most crimes, conspiracy requires an act (actus reus) and an accompanying mental state (mens rea). The agreement constitutes the act, and the intention to achieve the unlawful objective of that agreement constitutes the required mental state.

The Agreement

One of the fundamental purposes of the criminal law is to prevent conduct that is harmful to society. Accordingly, the law punishes conduct that threatens to produce the harm, as well as conduct that has actually produced it. However, the law does not punish all persons shown to harbor a criminal intent. Everyone occasionally thinks of committing a crime, but few actually carry the thought into action. Therefore, the law proceeds only against persons who engage in acts that sufficiently demonstrate their firm intention to commit a crime.

The Act of Conspiracy

The rationale of conspiracy is that the required objective manifestation of disposition to criminality is provided by the act of agreement. Agreement represents an advancement of the intentions that a person conceives in his mind. Intervention of the law at this point is said to be justified because the act of agreement indicates a firm intention to promote the crime, and because the agreement enhances the likelihood that unlawful action will ensue. The greater probability of action is believed to stem from the dynamics of group activity: the group exerts psychological pressure against withdrawal of its members, a single individual cannot deflect the will of the group as easily as he can change his own mind, and the group can bring greater resources to bear on its objective than could an individual acting alone. Conspiracy law, then, seeks to counter the special dangers incident to group activity reaching back to incipient stages of criminal behavior.

Ironically, conspiracy was initially directed neither at preparatory activity nor at group crime in general. Rather, it was a narrowly circumscribed statutory remedy designed to combat abuses against the administration of justice. According to Edward Coke, it consisted of ‘‘a consultation and agreement between two or more to appeal or indict an innocent man falsely and maliciously of felony, whom accordingly they cause to be indicted and appealed; and afterward the party is lawfully acquitted’’ (p. 142).

A writ of conspiracy would lie only for this particular offense, and only when the offense (including acquittal of the falsely indicted party) had actually taken place. However in 1611 the Court of Star Chamber extended the law by upholding a conspiracy conviction even though the rarely accused party was not indicted (Poulterers’ Case, 77 Eng. Rep. 813 (K.B. 1611) (Coke)). The court reasoned that the confederating together, and not the false indictment, was the gist of the offense. The ramifications of this decision were twofold. First, if it was not necessary that the intended injury occur, then conspiracy punished the attempted crime. Second, if the agreement and not the false indictment was the target of conspiracy law, then conspiracy was loosed from its mooring: subsequent decisions logically could and in fact did hold that agreement to commit any unlawful act was criminal conspiracy.

There is a serious question as to whether the act of agreement is not too slender a reed to support such a vast extension of conspiracy law. First, agreement—a ‘‘conscious union of wills upon a common undertaking’’ (Developments in the Law, p. 926)—is an act primarily mental in nature. This is emphasized by the fact that parties to an agreement need not communicate directly; a tacit understanding may constitute an agreement. Conspiracy thus comes perilously close to criminalizing an evil state of mind without any accompanying act. Most jurisdictions have therefore bolstered the act element by requiring an overt act in pursuance of the conspiracy. The function of the overt act is ‘‘to manifest that the conspiracy is at work . . . and is neither a project still resting solely in the minds of the conspirators nor a fully completed operation no longer in existence’’ (Yates v. United States, 354 U.S. 298, 334 (1957)). However, this requirement rarely hinders a conspiracy prosecution because almost any act, however trivial, will suffice. For example, if two persons plan to rob a bank, the purchase of disguises would be a sufficient overt act. An act of this nature is highly equivocal; it would not support an attempt conviction because it is not a substantial act that sufficiently demonstrates the defendants firm intention to rob the bank. There is reason, then, to support the position of a few states that set a stricter standard by requiring a substantial step in pursuance of the object of the conspiracy, and thereby render conspiracy more comparable to the law of attempt (Note, pp. 1153–1154).

Second, conspiracy is a clandestine activity. Persons generally do not form illegal covenants openly. In the interests of security, a person may carry out his part of a conspiracy without even being informed of the identity of his coconspirators. Since an agreement of this kind can rarely be shown by direct proof, it must be inferred from circumstantial evidence of cooperation between the defendants. What people do is, of course, evidence of what lies in their minds. Since a person’s acts might, by extension of this principle, create an inference concerning what he has agreed to do, it is fair to infer an agreement to join a conspiracy from the performance of acts that further its purpose. However, this evidentiary rule can obscure the basic principle that conspiracy is not established without proof of an agreement. Conspiracy is not merely a concurrence of wills, but a concurrence resulting from agreement. Even if a conspiracy between two parties is established, not every act of a third party that assists in accomplishment of the objective of the conspiracy is a sufficient basis to demonstrate his concurrence in that agreement.

Unfortunately, many courts have not adhered strictly to the requirement of an agreement. The decision of the United States Supreme Court in Interstate Circuit Inc. v. United States, 306 U.S. 208 (1939) is more representative of the courts’ loose treatment of the requirement of an actual agreement. In this case, the manager of Interstate, a motion picture exhibitor that dominated the motion picture business in certain cities in Texas, sent a letter to eight motion picture distributors demanding certain concessions as conditions for continued exhibition of those distributors’ films. He requested that, in selling their products to ‘‘subsequent run’’ theaters, the distributors impose the restrictions that the films never be exhibited below a certain admission price or in conjunction with another film as a double feature. Both of these restrictions constituted significant departures from prior practice. The Court found that the distributors conspired with one another and with Interstate to impose the demanded restrictions in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Agreement among the distributors was inferred from several strands of evidence. First, the letter named all eight distributors as addressees; hence each distributor was aware that the proposals were being considered by the others. Second, the distributors were in active competition; hence without unanimous action with respect to the restrictions, each risked substantial loss of business, and, conversely, unanimity yielded a prospect of increased profits. Finally, the distributors did in fact act with substantial unanimity. However, since the actions of each distributor might just as easily have resulted from the exercise of self-interest in the absence of any illegal agreement, the Court had to take one step further. It declared, ‘‘We think that in the circumstances of this case such agreement for the imposition of the restrictions upon subsequent run exhibitors was not a prerequisite to an unlawful conspiracy. It was enough that, knowing that concerted action was contemplated and invited, the distributors gave their adherence to the scheme and participated in it’’ (Interstate Circuit Inc., 226). Such a dilution of the requirement of agreement may be necessary in view of the special problems of enforcing the nation’s antitrust policy. However, difficulties of proof lead courts to extend the principle to conspiracy prosecutions generally.

The Scope of A Conspiracy

Another large problem that arises in connection with the requirement of an agreement is that of determining the scope of a conspiracy—who are the parties and what are their objectives. The determination is critical, since it defines the potential liability of each defendant. Ascertaining the boundaries or scope of a conspiratorial relationship is crucial for resolving several major questions. Among these are (1) the propriety of joint prosecution; (2) the admissibility against a defendant of hearsay declarations of other conspirators; (3) the satisfaction of the overt-act requirement; (4) the liability of a defendant for substantive crimes committed by other conspirators pursuant to a conspiracy; and (5) the possibility of multiple convictions for conspiracy and substantive crimes.

The problems generated by the question of the scope of conspiracy are among the most troublesome in conspiracy law. They derive from the necessity of applying the theoretical idea of agreement to the reality of ongoing, fluctuating partnerships engaged in diverse criminal activity. Can a single agreement embrace persons unknown to one another in a sprawling, far-flung illegal operation? Can separate decisions made over a course of time to commit various crimes be said to stem from a single agreement? Generally, does the multiplicity of relationships making up a criminal organization constitute one large conspiracy or several smaller ones?

The law has developed several different models with which to approach the question of scope. One such model is that of a chain, where each party performs a role that aids succeeding parties in accomplishing the criminal objectives of the conspiracy. An illustration of such a single conspiracy, its parts bound together as links in a chain, is the process of distributing an illegal foreign drug. In one such case, smugglers, middlemen, and retailers were convicted of a single conspiracy to smuggle and distribute narcotics (United States v. Bruno, 105 F.2d 921 (2d Cir.), rev’d on other grounds, 308 U.S. 287 (1939)). On appeal, the defendants argued that there were separate conspiracies—one between the smugglers and the middlemen, and the other between the middlemen and the retailers. The court rejected this view and found a single overall conspiracy despite the absence of cooperation or communication between the smugglers and retailers, stating:

The smugglers knew that the middlemen must sell to retailers; and the retailers knew that the middlemen must buy of importers of one sort or another. Thus the conspirators at one end of the chain knew that the unlawful business would not, and could not, stop with their buyers; and those at the other end knew that it had not begun with their sellers. . . . The accused were embarked upon a venture, in all parts of which each was a participant, and an abettor in the sense that the success of the part with which he was immediately concerned, was dependent upon the success of the whole [922].

Another prototype, denominated the wheel conspiracy, exists where one central figure, the hub, conspires with several others, the spokes. The question is whether there is a rim to bind all the spokes together in a single conspiracy. A rim is found only when there is proof that the spokes were aware of one another’s existence and that all promoted the furtherance of some single illegal objective. In the celebrated case of Kotteakos v. United States, 328 U.S. 750 (1946), one man, Brown, agreed with a number of different persons to obtain loans for each of them from the Federal Housing Authority through fraudulent means. Since each of these transactions was entirely distinct and independent of the others, there could not be a finding of a single conspiracy. Instead, there were a number of separate conspiracies consisting of Brown and each of his customers.

On the other hand, a single conspiracy may be found where each person’s success depends on continued operation of the hub, which in turn depends on success of all the spokes. In this situation each spoke can be said to contribute to the separate objectives of all the other spokes. In the case of Anderson v. Superior Court, 78 Cal. App. 2d 22, 177 P.2d 315 (1947), a woman who referred pregnant women to a physician for abortions was indicted for a conspiracy to commit abortion with him and with other persons who referred pregnant women to him. She was also indicted for the illegal abortions committed upon the women she referred, as well as for the abortions committed upon women referred by the other persons who had made such referrals. The court held that the evidence permitted the inference of a conspiracy among all the referring persons and the physician, because the defendant knew that the others were referring business to him, and because his continued functioning and hence the woman’s commission depended upon continuance of all these sources of referral. For these reasons it might be said that she contributed to each separate instance of abortion.

These models deal with situations in which various parties conspire to promote a single unlawful objective. The traditional concept of agreement can also accommodate the situation where a well-defined group conspires to commit multiple crimes; so long as all these crimes are the objects of ‘‘the same agreement or continuous conspiratorial relationship,’’ a finding of one large conspiracy is appropriate (Model Penal Code, 1962, § 5.03(c)).

However, traditional conspiracy law is inadequate when applied to criminal organizations in which highly diverse objectives are pursued by apparently unrelated individuals. Hence, Congress enacted the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 [RICO] to cope with the growing problem of organized crime (18 U.S.C. §§ 1961–1968 (1999)). This act facilitates conspiracy prosecutions by modifying the traditional idea of a conspiratorial objective. Instead of proving that each defendant conspired to commit a particular crime or crimes—a task that is exceedingly difficult in the context of a large, sprawling criminal organization—the prosecution need only show that each defendant conspired to promote the enterprise through his individual pattern of criminal activity. No matter how diverse the goals of a large criminal organization, there is but one objective: to promote the furtherance of the enterprise.

The problem with this tendency to view conspiracy as an ongoing criminal enterprise is that it beclouds the idea of an act of agreement. Many persons may thereby be snared in the coils of a single conspiracy whose nature and membership were unknown to them. The effect may be to convict people in circumstances where the traditional requirement of personal guilt is not present. The Model Penal Code has attempted to reformulate the definition of conspiracy to avoid this consequence. For each defendant, it would ask whether and with whom he agreed to commit which parts of the entire illegal scheme, thus reaffirming the centrality of the agreement in a conspiracy prosecution (MPC, 1960, commentary on § 5.03). A number of state criminal codes have now adopted this approach.

Mental State

The two elements of mental state required by conspiracy are the intent to agree and the intent to promote the unlawful objective of the conspiracy. The first of these elements is almost indistinguishable from the act of agreement. Agreement is in any case morally neutral; its moral character depends upon the nature of the objective of agreement. It is the intention to promote a crime that lends conspiracy its criminal cast.

Some crimes do not require an intention to cause the prohibited result. Manslaughter, for example, may be committed by a person who kills another by his act of driving carelessly. These crimes may not be the basis of a conspiracy, however, since two people could not be said to agree together to kill another carelessly. The nature of the requirement of agreement, therefore, limits the objectives of conspiracy to those crimes that are committed by intentional actions.

Problems arise, however, in determining the sense of intention that is required. Does it include acting with knowledge of the probable results of one’s action, or is it confined to acting with a purpose to attain such results? The question has most frequently arisen in the case of suppliers who furnish goods to members of a conspiracy with knowledge of their intended illegal use. Examples include the supplying of yeast and sugar to a group known to be using them to engage in illegal production of whiskey (United States v. Falcone, 311 U.S. 205 (1940)), or the furnishing of medical drugs by a manufacturer that knows they will be used for nonmedical and illegal purposes (Direct Sales Co. v. United States, 319 U.S. 703 (1943)).

Some courts have found it enough to convict the supplier for an illegal conspiracy with the user when the supplier knew of the illegal use. The justification for this position is that the supplier has knowingly furthered a crime and has no interest in doing so that is worthy of protection (MPC, 1960, commentary on § 5.03). However, the majority view is to the contrary: the supplier must be shown to have had a purpose to further the illegal objectives of the user (MPC, 1962, § 5.03(1)). In the language of Judge Learned Hand, ‘‘he must in some sense promote their venture himself, make it his own, have a stake in its outcome’’ (United States v. Falcone, 109 F.2d 579, 581 (1949)). This might be demonstrated by evidence of the sale of unusually large quantities of goods, particularly where such goods are legally restricted; by evidence of inflated charges or of the sale of goods with no legitimate use; or by evidence that sales to an illegal operation have become a dominant proportion of the seller’s business.

The reasons for requiring a stake in the venture are twofold. First, the act of agreement necessarily imports a purpose; indifference to illegal use by another of what one supplies him for otherwise legitimate reasons does not constitute an agreement. Second, making the supplier liable in these situations whenever a jury decides that he knew of the illegal use imposes an undue burden on legitimate business since to avoid liability suppliers would be obliged to police the intended uses of their purchasers. By taking into account the social usefulness of the commercial activity and the magnitude of the seller’s contribution to the crime, the majority rule strikes a balance between the needs of business enterprises to operate without oppressive restriction and of society to protect itself against crime.

Sometimes the issue arises whether a mistake of fact that would not defeat liability for the object offense nevertheless defeats liability for conspiracy. The argument that it does is sometimes couched in logical or conceptual terms: ‘‘While one may, for instance, be guilty of running past a traffic light of whose existence one is ignorant,’’ Judge Learned Hand wrote in another famous decision, ‘‘one cannot be guilty of conspiring to run past such a light unless one supposes that there is a light to run past’’ (United States v. Cummins, 123 F.2d 271, 273 (1941)). But other courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Feola, 420 U.S. 672, 693 (1975), have taken a more pragmatic stance, reasoning that the mental state element of the conspiracy charge should mirror that of the substantive offense ‘‘unless one of the policies behind the imposition of conspiratorial liability [would] not [be] served by such a result.’’ The Model Penal Code makes this an issue to be resolved on a caseby-case basis (MPC 1985, commentary on § 5.03, at 4.13).

The Object of A Conspiracy

Common law conspiracy encompassed agreements to commit an unlawful act. The key word is unlawful: it refers not only to criminal, but also to tortious acts, or even to acts that, in the opinion of a court, result in ‘‘prejudice to the general welfare or oppression of an individual of sufficient gravity to be injurious to the public interest’’ (Commonwealth v. Dyer, 243 Mass. 472, 138 N.E. 206 (1922)). This rule owed its origin to seventeenth-century expansion of the scope of conspiracy, which was stimulated by impatience with the narrow technicalities of medieval law, coupled with a tendency to identify criminality with immorality. It was thought that courts had authority to correct errors and misdemeanors extra-judicial, tending to the breach of peace, or oppression of the subjects, or to the raising of faction, controversy, debate, or to any manner of misgovernment; so that no wrong or injury, either public or private, can be done, but that it shall be here reformed or punished by due course of law. (Bagg’s Case, 77 Eng. Rep. 1271 (K.B. 1616) (Coke))

The doctrine’s most significant use in the United States occurred in the early nineteenth century, when many courts sustained criminal-conspiracy prosecutions against unions of workers seeking to organize in order to pressure employers to meet their employment demands by collectively withholding their labor (Wellington, pp. 7–46).

In affording discretion to judges to punish as a crime the group pursuit of any objectives they determined to be against morality and the public interest, the law of conspiracy contravened the classic principle of nulla poena sine lege (no punishment without law). It also went contrary to the principle forbidding ex post facto punishment (criminalizing conduct not previously declared to be criminal). Today, such discretionary criminal liability is vulnerable to constitutional attack as violative of due process of law (Musser v. Utah, 333 U.S. 95 (1948)). Although the common law rule still prevails in some jurisdictions—notably in the federal provision directed against conspiracy to commit ‘‘any offense’’ against or to defraud the United States (18 U.S.C. § 371 (1999))—the modern approach limits the scope of conspiracy to statutorily defined criminal objectives, except where the legislature has identified and prohibited specific kinds of concerted activity.

Conspiracy and Complicity

Conspiracy is not only a substantive crime. It also serves as a basis for holding one person liable for the crimes of others in cases where application of the usual doctrines of complicity would not render that person liable. Thus, one who enters into a conspiratorial relationship is liable for even reasonably foreseeable crime committed by every other member of the conspiracy in furtherance of its objectives, whether or not he knew of the crimes or aided in their commission. The rationale is that

criminal acts done in furtherance of a conspiracy may be sufficiently dependent upon the encouragement and support of the group as a whole to warrant treating each member as a causal agent to each act. Under this view, which of the conspirators committed the substantive offence would be less significant in determining the defendant’s liability than the fact that the crime was performed as part of a larger division of labor to which the defendant had also contributed his efforts [Developments in the Law, p. 998].

This rationale, however, becomes attenuated in many situations in which the doctrine is applied. For example, in the leading case of Pinkerton v. United States, 328 U.S. 640 (1946), a defendant who had earlier conspired with his brother to operate an illegal still was held liable for his brother’s later acts of operating the still, despite the fact that by the time those acts were committed, the defendant was in prison for another offense.

Although dilution of the strict concepts of causality and intention may be required to cope with the dangers of organized crime, serious objections have been raised to this aspect of the law of conspiracy. Liability for substantive crimes is predicated on the loose evidentiary standards of conspiracy law; liability attaches for crimes not actually intended or even necessarily foreseen; and holding each member of a conspiracy liable for all crimes committed by the group without regard to the character of that person’s role within the group yields overly broad liability without penal justification. This is particularly true in those jurisdictions that allow the finding of a single conspiracy, rather than several smaller ones, in cases of large, sprawling, and loosely confederated criminal enterprises. As a consequence, some states, following the lead of the Model Penal Code, have eliminated this feature of traditional conspiracy by declaring that one is liable for the criminal actions of another only if he is made liable by the doctrines of the law of complicity.

Procedural Rules

Perhaps the most significant advantage of a prosecutor’s decision to charge several defendants with conspiracy is that he may invoke special procedural rules that apply only to conspiracy cases. The major prosecutorial advantages of conspiracy are that it enables the prosecution to join all the conspirators for trial and to use out-of-court statements of each conspirator against all the others.

Joinder of conspirators for trial, coupled with relaxation of the rules of venue to allow the trial to take place wherever acts in pursuance of the conspiracy have occurred, is a measure designed to promote efficiency and convenience for courts, prosecutors, and witnesses. Where evidence pertaining to all defendants substantially overlaps, joinder avoids multiple trials involving the same issues and evidence. Even where the cases against various defendants are more distinct, the rule is helpful to the prosecution, since such constraining factors as prosecutorial resources and availability of witnesses often dictate a choice between joint trial and dismissal of charges against some of the conspirators.

In some situations, however, joinder may well yield not increased efficiency but rather a profusion of evidence, a multiplication of issues, and consequently much ambiguity and confusion. Moreover, joinder may substantially impair the rights of defendants. Where the jury is asked to hear a large amount of complex evidence, to remember which evidence applies to which defendant, and to make fine discriminations of individual guilt or innocence, there are several problems. First, there is serious danger of guilt by association. Second, conspirators may be hampered in their defense if optimal group strategy conflicts with the best course for an individual. Frequently, defendants attempt to cast the blame on someone else, and end up by convicting one another.

Loosened standards of admissibility of evidence prevail in a conspiracy trial. Contrary to the usual rule, in conspiracy prosecutions any declaration by one conspirator, made in furtherance of a conspiracy and during its pendency (hearsay), is admissible against each coconspirator. For example, in a conspiracy prosecution of a sheriff and a magistrate for extorting money from a coal company, an executive of the company testified that the sheriff told him that the magistrate was his (the sheriff’s) agent in the extortion scheme and would pick up the extortion payments (United States v. Vinson, 606 F.2d 149 (6th Cir. 1979)). This testimony would normally be inadmissible because it is hearsay as against the magistrate—that is, it is testimony by the declarant (the witness) of what someone else said (the sheriff), offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted by that other person (that the magistrate was his agent in the scheme). However, since there was enough evidence of a conspiracy, the hearsay testimony was admitted as further evidence of the conspiracy and of the magistrate’s participation in it.

The conventional reason for the exclusion of hearsay evidence is that such evidence is thought to be untrustworthy. The witness may report it poorly, either from faulty memory or from motive to misstate, and more importantly, the jury has no means of evaluating the credibility of the declaration unless the original declarant is available for cross-examination. Despite the unreliability of hearsay evidence, it is admissible in conspiracy prosecutions. Explaining this rule, Judge Hand said, ‘‘Such declarations are admitted upon no doctrine of the law of evidence, but of the substantive law of crime. When men enter into an agreement for an unlawful end, they become ad hoc agents for one another, and have made ‘a partnership in crime.’ What one does pursuant to their common purpose, all do, and as declarations may be such acts, they are competent against all’’ (Van Riper v. United States, 13 F.2d 961, 967 (2d Cir. 1926)).

Thus conspirators are liable on an agency theory for statements of co-conspirators, just as they are for the overt acts and crimes committed by their confreres. Although this theory may explain why co-conspirators are liable for each other’s declarations, it does not really dispel the concerns of the hearsay rule regarding the trustworthiness of evidence. By requiring that the declarations be made within the scope of the agency relationship and with intent to advance the objectives of that relationship, the rule excludes declarations made before the agreement or after the termination of the conspiracy as peripheral and hence too unreliable. It thereby creates a nexus between the declarations and the criminal goals of the conspiracy, with whatever assurance of truth that might import.

However, the justification for circumventing the hearsay rule in conspiracy prosecutions is the practical need for such evidence—since conspiracy is a type of crime of which direct evidence is usually unavailable, the choice may be between admitting inferior evidence and admitting no evidence at all. Nevertheless the practice of admitting this evidence conflicts with the policy of the hearsay rule.

The problems encountered in applying the exception to the hearsay rule for co-conspirators were aptly described by justice Robert Jackson in his concurring opinion in Krulewitch v. United States, 336 U.S. 440, 453 (1949):

Strictly, the prosecution should first establish prima facie the conspiracy and identify the conspirators, after which evidence of acts and declarations of each in the course of its execution are admissible against all. But the order of proof of so sprawling a charge is difficult for a judge to control. As a practical matter, the accused often is confronted with a hodgepodge of acts and statements by others which he may never have authorized or intended or even known about, but which help to persuade the jury of existence of the conspiracy itself. In other words, a conspiracy often is proved by evidence that is admissible only upon assumption that conspiracy existed. The naive assumption that prejudicial effects can be overcome by instructions to the jury . . . all practicing lawyers know to be unmitigated fiction.


Conspiracy, a crime special to common law jurisdictions and largely unknown, except in modest forms, in continental European countries, is one of the most controversial of all substantive crimes. It affords great advantages to law enforcement, since it avoids multiple trials, permits prosecution of preparatory activity at an early stage, facilitates prosecution against organized criminality, and extends a number of evidentiary and procedural advantages to the prosecution. At the same time, it constitutes what Justice Jackson in Krulewitch termed an ‘‘elastic, sprawling and pervasive offense’’ (445) that departs from traditional requirements of liability: (1) the crime of conspiracy is vaguely defined and its contours are often unpredictable; (2) it permits conviction on acts largely mental in character; (3) its essential feature, an agreement, is often diluted to something approaching suspicion of agreement; and (4) it affords a highly tenuous basis for holding the defendant for substantive crimes committed by others. Moreover, the procedural advantages to the prosecution impose corresponding disadvantages on the defendant, disadvantages thought inappropriate and unfair when other crimes are charged.

The balance has been struck on the side of retaining the offense with modest revisions, despite long-standing criticism ( Johnson). The crime of conspiracy will in all likelihood remain an integral part of the prosecutor’s arsenal. Whether it will be kept within tolerable bounds depends on how sensitively and critically prosecutors employ it, courts administer and interpret it, and legislators act to preclude its excesses.


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