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A federal drug conspiracy is simply an agreement made with at least one other person to commit a federal drug crime. The government needs to prove:
- That the agreement was made,
- That the defendant joined the conspiracy voluntarily, and
- That the defendant knew the conspiracy existed.
What Does Not Need to Be Proven
The government does not need to prove that the defendant knew all the details of the conspiracy or knew all the other people involved, but it must prove that the defendant knew the conspiracy’s main purpose. Usually, that means the government must prove that the defendant knew that he or she was joining together with one or more other person for the purpose of distributing a controlled substance.
The government is not required to prove that the agreement was made formally. An unspoken “understanding” might be a conspiracy, although whether a conspiracy actually existed under those circumstances sometimes provides a defendant with a defense to the charge. For instance, evidence that two drug dealers are working on the same street and that they refer business to each other when they run out of drugs may not be enough to convince a jury that the two individuals were conspiring to distribute drugs. They may have been friendly competitors rather than conspirators.
Some other federal conspiracy statutes require the government to prove that the defendant engaged in an “overt act” to further the conspiracy, but a drug conspiracy charge merely requires the government to prove that the defendant joined the conspiracy. If the defendant did nothing to further the conspiracy, however, ambiguity about whether the defendant actually joined the conspiracy can provide the defendant with a defense.
In some cases, it is possible to argue that the defendant withdrew from the conspiracy before the conspiracy engaged in a criminal act. That defense is more common in conspiracies that do not involve drug crimes (like a conspiracy to rob a bank), but it sometimes provides the basis for a defense against a drug conspiracy charge.
If the defendant knew about the conspiracy or was present when the conspiracy was discussed but did not join it, the defendant did not commit a crime. Mere association with members of a conspiracy is not a crime. Merely knowing that someone else plans to commit a crime is not a crime. Again, the ambiguous nature of the government’s proof of membership in a conspiracy can provide a defense against drug conspiracy charges.
Drug conspiracies are popular with federal prosecutors. It is easier to prove that a defendant conspired to do something than to prove that the defendant actually did it. When the government does not catch a defendant with a substantial amount of drugs and the defendant has not distributed drugs to an undercover officer, the government often bases its prosecution on a conspiracy charge.
Many conspiracy charges are based on the word of cooperating witnesses (“snitches”). Since those witnesses are usually hoping for a lesser sentence (or an agreement not to prosecute) in exchange for their testimony, their credibility is often suspect. Attacking the credibility of witnesses in a conspiracy charge is generally the key to a successful defense.
Drug Conspiracy Penalties
The penalties for a conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance are the same as the penalties for distribution. The applicable penalty depends upon the specific controlled substance and the quantity involved.