Unit 27: Conspiracy III


  • Dressler 419-428

  • Kilgore (CP)

  • Whitney (CP)

  • Mast (CP)

Key words: 

  • wheel conspiracy

  • chain conspiracy


Structure of a Conspiracy

Conspiracies can be conceptualized in three ways: wheel conspiracies, chain conspiracies, and chain-wheel hybrid conspiracies.

A wheel conspiracy has one person (or group) in the center, called the hub, and other people (or groups) coming off as spokes from the hub. To constitute a wheel conspiracy, the spokes connect to each other, forming the “rim” of the wheel; otherwise, the structure is considered one of multiple chain conspiracies. In order to connect the spokes, the individuals must share a “community of interest” (common law) or know of each other’s involvement (MPC).

A chain conspiracy consists of multiple actors (or groups) linked in a chain, forming a criminal hierarchy. Chain conspiracies often occur in business-like criminal activity, since there is a division of labor, with each level of the chain specializing in certain conduct.

Chain-wheel hybrid conspiracies are a combination of a wheel and chain conspiracy.

Why Structure Matters

The structure of a conspiracy plays an important role in criminal prosecution. For example, it will affect the number of conspiracy counts with which a defendant can be charged. Prosecutors often want to include as many conspirators as possible in one conspiracy. Since co-conspirators are liable for the substantive offenses committed in furtherance of the criminal objective, the larger the conspiracy, the more crimes for which the defendant will be subject to liability.

The structure of a conspiracy also affects matters of evidence, proof requirements, and venue.  Hearsay statements made by co-conspirators during the life of the conspiracy can be admitted at trial, providing another incentive for prosecutors to charge as many members as possible as part of one conspiracy. The overt act requirement is also easier to satisfy when a conspiracy is charged as one conspiracy as opposed to several little ones, because the overt act of any member of the conspiracy satisfies the requirement. Co-conspirators can also be tried jointly, making it hard for a jury to acquit a co-conspirator when they think other co-conspirators are guilty, since evidence that only pertains to certain defendants will be hard to separate from the other defendants. Finally, the structure of the conspiracy affects venue, since a conspiracy can be prosecuted in any jurisdiction where a co-conspirator acted to further the conspiracy.

Connecting the Conspirators

At common law, a defendant does not have to know the identity or existence of other co-conspirators in order to be liable for their acts. Instead, there need only be a “community of interest” among the co-conspirators or, in some cases, mere reason to know of each other’s existence.

To determine the number of conspiracies, different jurisdictions took different approaches at common law. The United States Supreme Court, however, has held that for purposes of federal conspiracy, the number of conspiracies would be based on the number of agreements. For example, in Braverman, the defendants operated a business manufacturing, transporting, and distributing alcohol across state lines in violation of seven different federal statutes. Although the defendants contemplated that their conduct would violate more than one statute, they did not make several different agreements to violate each statute separately. Rather, they agreed on a course of conduct for their business that would violate seven statutes. Since there was only one agreement, there was only one conspiracy, and the number of statutes violated was irrelevant.

MPC 5.03(2) requires that a defendant know of the existence of other co-conspirators in order to be in a conspiracy with them.  However, a defendant does not have to know the identities of the other co-conspirators. MPC 5.03(3) dictates that one conspiracy exists if: (1) there is only one agreement, or (2) multiple criminal objectives are part of a continuous conspiratorial relationship.

Because the MPC only requires a unilateral agreement, it is possible for one conspirator to be guilty of conspiring with another, but not vice versa. For example, suppose X imports drugs and gives them to Y, a middle man, to distribute to retailers. The retailers think Y imports the drugs and do not know of X’s existence. Under the MPC, X would be guilty of conspiring with the retailers, but the retailers would not be guilty of conspiring with X.

Questions for Review:

Q1. What is the difference between a wheel conspiracy under MPC 5.03 and at common law?

Q2. A group of scientists create a strand of a disease that could wipe out a certain portion of the population. They sell the strand to Bill, a known mob boss. Bill tells his closest advisor, Sergio, about the strand, and they concoct a plan to extort the United States Government. To enact this plan, Sergio directs three underlings to rob a bank, and to purposefully allow of them to get arrested. The underlings know that Sergio is not the head of the mob, but Bill’s identity is secret. Who is guilty of conspiracy under MPC 5.03?

Q3. X supplies drugs to Y. Y in turn sells those drugs to drug dealers A, B, and C. What facts as a prosecutor would make it easier to prosecute X for conspiring with A, B, and C?