Federal Laws Prohibiting Conspiracy to Commit an Offense Against or to Defraud the United States (18 USC 371)

Federal conspiracy charges are often filed in conjunction with other crimes, such as counterfeiting United States currency.

While a conspiracy to commit an offense or defraud the government may at first seem like the plot to an exciting new Hollywood thriller, charges of conspiracy are more common than you might think. In fact, in a recent case, former California state senator Leland Yee was convicted in the well publicized “Shrimp Boy” scandal for federal conspiracy, among other crimes.1

The language of federal conspiracy law encompasses a variety of crimes which you may not realize are considered defrauding the United States government.

Chapter 18 of the United States Code, Section 371, makes it a federal crime for “two or more persons [to] conspire either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose.”2 In addition, one or more of these persons engaged in the conspiracy must act in a way that furthers the conspiracy itself.3

Under this statute, to “defraud” the United States means:

  • Obstructing or impairing the efficiency of any department of the government, to destroy its operation and reports as fair, impartial, and reasonably accurate; and
  • Cheating the government out of money or property4


More common examples of defrauding the government include engaging in dishonest practices with respect to government programs administered by agencies such as the Federal Election Commission, the Veterans Administration, or the Federal Housing Administration.5

If you are engaged in a conspiracy to commit an offense or to defraud the federal government, you may also be charged with offenses such as aiding and abetting, or solicitation.6 These crimes carry harsh punishments, and it is vital that you seek the help of an experienced federal criminal defense attorney if you are facing federal conspiracy charges.

Prosecution of Federal Conspiracy

In order for you to be convicted of violating 18 USC 371, the prosecution must prove all of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  1. An agreement existed between at least two people to defraud or commit an offense against the US government;
  2. You willfully joined said agreement; and
  3. You or one other conspirator committed an overt act meant to further the purpose of the conspiracy.


The prosecution does not need to prove, however, that the conspiracy actually led to any proprietary or monetary loss by the US government or its agencies.7

Sentencing and Punishment for Federal Conspiracy Charges

punishment for federal conspiracy laws
If you are convicted of federal conspiracy under 18 USC 371, you face up to 5 years in federal prison.

If you are convicted of violating 18 U.S. Code 371, you face a sentence of up to 5 years in federal prison and fines up to $250,000.8 In the case of conspiracy by organizations, you face a fine of up to $500,000.9

If, however, you are convicted for violating 18 U.S. Code 371 and the underlying crime was a misdemeanor, then the punishment cannot exceed the maximum punishment which that misdemeanor would carry.10

Possible Defenses to Federal Conspiracy

If you have been charged with violating 18 U.S. Code 371, a skilled federal criminal defense attorney can raise several defenses on your behalf. These defenses may include:

  • There was no agreement to engage in conspiracy –18 U.S. Code 371 does not require an agreement to be made in writing. This can make proving the existence of an agreement very difficult, and a skilled criminal defense attorney can argue that no agreement ever took place.
  • You did not willfully join the agreement to engage in the conspiracy – Under 18 U.S. Code 371, a person must (a) intend to agree, and (b) intend for the underlying crime to be committed, in order to be found to have acted willfully.11 A forced agreement made under duress or threat, or a mere presence at the scene of the crime is not enough for you to be convicted, and a skilled attorney can raise this legal defense on your behalf.
  • There was no overt act meant to further the conspiracy – 18 U.S. Code 371 requires an overt act (an act knowingly committed) be done to further the conspiracy.12 This means that, if a conspiracy agreement was found, but no act was made in furtherance of carrying out the alleged agreement, you should not be convicted of federal conspiracy.


Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Federal Conspiracy

At Wallin & Klarich, we frequently receive questions from those facing federal conspiracy charges. These include:

If convicted, am I subject to restitution?

Maybe. Restitution orders, while required in most situations, are largely dependent on the circumstances of the underlying crime. However, if you are convicted of federal conspiracy, you may be liable for restitution to any person directly harmed by your conduct in the course of the conspiracy.

Can I be convicted if the conspiracy was unsuccessful?

Yes. Even if the conspiracy was unsuccessful, or had a high likelihood that it would not succeed, you can still be charged with violating 18 U.S. Code 371. The prosecution need only prove that you acted in furtherance of carrying out the alleged conspiracy, regardless of whether it was successful or unsuccessful.

Is it a violation of 18 U.S. Code 371 to conspire by myself?

No. In order for you to be convicted of federal conspiracy, there must be at least two people involved.

Contact Wallin & Klarich if You Have Been Charged with Federal Conspiracy

partners 2015 - federal conspiracy
The attorneys at Wallin & Klarich have been defending those charged with federal crimes for over 40 years.

If you have been federally charged with conspiring to commit an offense or to defraud the U.S. government, you need to speak with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney right away. Wallin & Klarich has been successfully defending those facing federal criminal charges for over 40 years. We can help you, too.

With offices in Los Angeles, Sherman Oaks, Torrance, Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, West Covina and Victorville, an experienced Wallin & Klarich attorney can help no matter where you work or live.

Call us at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or  (877) 466-5245 for a free telephone consultation. We will get through this together.

1. https://www.fbi.gov/sanfrancisco/press-releases/2015/former-state-senator-leland-yee-and-three-others-plead-guilty-to-racketeering

2. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/371

3. Ibid

4. http://www.justice.gov/usam/criminal-resource-manual-923-18-usc-371-conspiracy-defraud-us

5. Ibid

6. https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41223.pdf

7. http://www.justice.gov/usam/criminal-resource-manual-923-18-usc-371-conspiracy-defraud-us

8. https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41223.pdf

9. Ibid

10. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/371

11. http://federalevidence.com/pdf/JuryInst/1st.Crim.6.2014.pdf

12. Ibid

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