Is being in the presence of someone who is contemplating the commission of a crime illegal in itself? It depends on whether or not prosecutors believe that you engaged in a conspiracy with that other person.
Most people don't understand how conspiracy charges work. That is why they're shocked to find out that they're being accused of participating in a criminal conspiracy.
How do conspiracy charges work?
A criminal conspiracy requires an agreement between at least two people to commit a crime and at least one overt act that furthers the conspiracy.
For example, imagine that your best friend starts talking about robbing the Brink's truck after it picks up the deposits from a local supermarket. You agree to go along. Your friend buys a gun with the intention of committing the robbery.
At that point, even if neither of you moves forward with the plan, you are guilty of criminal conspiracy and could be arrested if someone finds out about your plans. In that way, conspiracy charges sometimes work to stop serious crimes before they are even committed.
Why are charges so problematic for defendants?
The problem with conspiracy charges is that they can sweep up people in the prosecution's net who are only peripherally involved in a crime. Those defendants can end up serving as much time as if they were major players in the crime.
This is particularly common with drug crimes. For example, imagine that your brother is dealing oxycontin. He asks you to deliver a payment to his supplier. You reluctantly agree. Unfortunately, that's all it takes to be charged with conspiracy -- and end up facing years in prison for drug trafficking.
Prosecutors often use conspiracy charges as an "add-on" to other criminal charges when they want to increase the potential sentence someone faces. They also use the charges as a bargaining chip -- rightfully guessing that low-level players in a conspiracy will trade what they know for a lesser sentence.
It's essential not to underestimate the reach of a federal prosecutor in these situations. No matter how minor your role in a crime -- even if the crime never actually took place -- you could be facing a lengthy jail sentence. An attorney who understands federal prosecution tactics can protect your rights and help you navigate your choices.