A conspiracy occurs when two or more people agree to commit a crime. In Federal court, defendants are often charged with committing the crime and conspiring to commit the crime.
In order for the jury to find a defendant guilty of conspiracy, the jury does not have to conclude that the defendent entered into an explicit agreement with another person to commit the crime, only that an understanding was reached. As a practical matter, anytime a person is accused of committing a crime in Federal court, and another person is alleged to have been a knowing participant in that crime, they are both likely to be charged with conspiracy. Conspiracy is rarely alleged as an offense in State court.
Under the Federal sentencing guidelines, the penalties for committing a conspiracy, and for committing the underlying offense, are usually the same. Federal prosecutors like to bring conspiracy charges because it liberates them of certain evidentiary restrictions. It also beneficial to the prosecutor if one of the members of the alleged conspiracy enters into a plea agreement admitting that the alleged conspiracy existed and testifies against his codefendant.
Conspiracy charges often give rise to complicated issues about when the conspiracy began, the admission of hearsay statements of some conspirators against others, whether the trial should be severed (i.e. the defendants tried individually), etc….. When charged with a conspiracy charge in Federal court, it is especially important to retain a lawyer experienced in this area of law.