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CRIMINAL LAW

Incomplete Crimes: Conspiracy,


Attempt & Solicitation
By Janet Portman, Attorney

The criminal law punishes attempts, agreements to commit crimes, and requests that other people
break the law.

Updated March 28, 2016

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When we think of criminal acts, most of the time we assume that the actors intentions have been carried out
the store was robbed, the check was forged. But some crimes consist of actions that fall short of the final act of
commission. These crimesattempts, conspiracy, and solicitationare known as incomplete, or inchoate crimes.

Incomplete crimes fall somewhere in the middle of the commit a crime process, which consists of six steps:

1. The actor gets the idea for the crime (killing the victim).

2. The actor evaluates the idea, deciding whether to proceed.

3. The actor decides to go forward with the idea.

4. The actor prepares for the crime, by obtaining necessary weapons, for example.

5. The actor begins the crime, and

6. The actor finishes, or completes the crime.

(Jerome Hall, General Principles of the Criminal Law, 558-99 (2d ed. 1960).)

We dont punish people for the first, second, or third steps, because we dont criminalize having an idea and a
decision alone; and we clearly we punish them for the sixth. But activity that happens in the stages in the middle,
numbers four and five, is also punishable as an incomplete crime.

Attempts
An attempted crime is one that wasnt finished, which failed to achieve completion for one of two reasons:

The defendant did everything she set out to do, but failed. For example, she decides to shoot the victim, buys
the gun, follows the victim, shoots, but misses. This is known as a complete attempt, or

The defendant does some of the acts needed to finish the crime, but is prevented from succeeding or decides
to quit. For instance, the defendant takes the steps noted above but changes her mind at the last minute, or is
prevented from continuing by the intervention of a police officer. This is known as an incomplete attempt.

Can one attempt to do every crime?


A person can be convicted of attempting to commit only certain crimesthose that require specific intent.
Specific intent describes the defendants state of mind, which is to achieve the result that the criminal statute
prohibits. Specific intent crimes differ from general intent crimes, which require only the intent to complete the
physical act. For example:

Murder is a specific intent crime because it requires the prosecutor to show that the defendant intended the
victim to die.

Battery is a general intent crime, because it requires only that the prosecution prove that the defendant
intentionally hit the victim, not that he wanted to cause specific injury or harm.

Its not easy to tell the difference between specific and general intent crimes. One way is to look at the statute of
the crime itself: Does the definition include a requirement that the actor intends the result? Under this test, its
clear why receiving stolen property is a specific intent crime, because its definition includes receiving the
property knowing that it is stolen.

What must the defendant do to constitute an attempt?


People must take a concrete, substantial step towards furthering their intent to break the law before they will be
guilty of an attempt. This is an act of perpetration (Step Four, above), not mere preparation (Step Three). So, for
example, purchasing the weapon, without more, wont expose the actor to attempted murder, but aiming it
towards the victim and firing will.

How are attempts punished?


Interestingly, the crime of attempt wasnt even a crime until the late 18th century (before that, a miss was as
good as a mile). After that, attempts were classified as misdemeanors, but today, almost all attempts to commit
a felony are themselves felonies. Attempts to commit specific felonies are often punished at half the maximum
allowed for the target crime; if the target is a capital crime or carries life in prison, the attempt will be punished
for a specific term of years.

Defendants who successfully complete a crime have also, in the course of their acts, attempted the crime.
Logically, theyve committed an attempt and the resulting crime. They can be charged with both, and the jury can
be given both verdicts to choose from, but defendants cannot be convicted of both. In legal lingo, the attempt
merges with the concluded crime.

Conspiracy
The crime of conspiracy is another incomplete, or inchoate, crime. Its an agreement, explicit or implied, among
two or more people, to commit a criminal act. But its a very controversial crime, because its definition is so vague.
Courts have struggled for years to differentiate mere ideas from agreements to break the law; theres a real risk
that people will be punished for what they say, not for what they do. Indeed, historically conspiracy laws have
been used to suppress controversial activity, such as strikes and dissent against public policies.
Is a mere agreement sufficient for a conspiracy to be formed?
Historically, the state did not have to prove that the defendants did any act to further the goal of the agreement.
But this led law enforcement to intervene prematurely, before anything dangerous had happened, and to target
what turned out to be banter. Accordingly, modern laws require one step, however trivial, be taken by the actors
toward furtherance of their goal. This is known as an overt act, and it need not be an attempt to further the
conspiracy. For example, making a phone call pursuant to the agreement, or even attending a lawful meeting,
may suffice. A single overt act taken by one member of the group suffices to prosecute every member, even
members who join the conspiracy after the act has taken place.

How do prosecutors prove an agreement?


The essence of a conspiracy is a mutual agreement to commit an illegal act or series of such acts. Every member
of the group need not agree to every detail of the arrangement, nor must every member agree to commit each
element of the offense. Its enough if each member agrees to commit or facilitate some of the acts that make up
the target crime.

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Prosecutors may establish an agreement with circumstantial evidence, from which juries can draw broad
inferences as to a mutual plan. One way of identifying a conspiracy is to ask whether the resulting crime appeared
to be choreographed. For example, imagine a car driven by Tom, in which Dick and Harry are passengers. Tom
stops the car, Dick and Harry get out, leave the doors open, accost and rob the victim, jump back in the car, and
Tom drives off. A jury could validly conclude that the robbery was planned by all three, who could be prosecuted
for conspiracy to rob and robbery itself.

What is the punishment for conspiracy?


Unlike the crime of attempt, conspiracy does not merge into the completed target act. As shown just above, all
three defendants face two charges each: conspiracy and robbery.

In a typical state statute, the punishment for conspiracy will parallel the punishment for the target crime, so that
conspiring to commit a misdemeanor will be a misdemeanor; and conspiring to commit a felony will be a felony
(though punished less severely than the target felony itself).

What are the defenses to conspiracy?


Defendants have offered several defenses to conspiracy charges, depending on the circumstances and the laws
of their states. Here are a few of the common ones.
Abandoning the plan. Sometimes defendants change their minds and abandon the criminal plan short of
accomplishing it. But a change of heart will not defeat a conspiracy conviction, because the crime is complete
once the agreement is formed or, in some states, once an overt act has taken place. But if a conspirator
withdraws from the plan (imagine that Dick gets out of the car but runs away), that person at least avoids liability
for the completed crime.

Conspiring to commit a crime that requires the agreement of two people. Some crimes, such as adultery and
bigamy, by definition require the willing cooperation of at least two people. Put another way, one person alone
cannot commit these crimes, which also include dueling, selling contraband, and receiving a bribe. Many courts
will not allow convictions for conspiring to commit them, but some will disallow a conspiracy conviction only
when the target offense has in fact been accomplished or attempted. Interestingly, this rule disappears in some
situations when more than two persons are involved in the conspiracy the conspiracy and the target offense
convictions are each allowed to stand.

Impossibility. Finally, defendants sometimes raise the issue of factual or legal impossibility as a defense to
conspiracy. For example, are Jane and Carol guilty of conspiring to murder someone if the intended victim is
already dead? Or, are they guilty of conspiring to steal trade secrets that turn out not to be trade secrets at all, or
of conspiring to receive stolen property that isnt really stolen? Most courts will not recognize these
impossibilities as a defense to conspiracy.

Solicitation
Solicitation is another incomplete crime, consisting of inviting, requesting, commanding, hiring, or encouraging
another person to commit a crime. Traditionally, one could solicit only felonies, but modern law applies to
misdemeanors, too.

What must the defendant intend when soliciting a crime?


The prosecution will need to prove to the jury that the defendant intended the other person to do just what the
defendant suggested. For example, a joking suggestion to harm someone, which is taken seriously by the listener,
wont rise to the crime of solicitation if the defendant can convince the jury that the words were meant in jest.

What must the defendant do to justify a conviction for solicitation?


The defendant must invite, request, and so on, but the actual target crime need not be committed, or even
attempted, for the accusation of solicitation to stick. For example, if Able asks Bob to rob Victor, but Bob refuses,
Able has still solicited Bob. However, if the request is never communicated, the crime may be attempted
solicitation, as when Mary writes to Kay, asking Kay to perform an illegal act, but Kay never receives the letter:
Here, Mary may be guilty only of attempted solicitation.

Solicitation is a very incomplete crime


Solicitation is perhaps the most incomplete of the three crimes discussed in this article. If the listener agrees to do
the act, the two have formed a conspiracy; and if the act is accomplished or simply attempted, they become
principals (responsible for the crime itself or the attempt). So, on the time-line of criminal thinking and behavior,
its at the far end, where merely asking someone to do a criminal act, without regard to that persons response, is
criminal behavior. In a sense, a solicitation is an attempted conspiracy.

Tagged as: Criminal Law , The Criminal Law Process

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