Whether the charges are in state court or federal court, conspiracy in South Carolina is when two or more people agree to commit a crime. 

Conspiracy is usually charged along with an underlying offense – the alleged crime that the conspirators are accused of agreeing to commit. There are major differences between conspiracy charges in South Carolina state courts and conspiracy charges in federal court, however, including how a person is sentenced if they are convicted of the crime. 

In this article, we will discuss conspiracy charges in South Carolina, including:

  • The definition of conspiracy in state court, 
  • Federal conspiracy charges, and
  • The potential penalties for conspiracy in state and federal courts in South Carolina. 

Criminal Conspiracy Charges in South Carolina State Court

Conspiracy charges are most often seen in the federal court, but, from time to time, we see conspiracy charges in South Carolina state courts as well. 

Although similar, they are separate charges in separate courts with different definitions, penalties, and procedures. You could be charged with conspiracy in both state and federal court – in most cases, it would not be double jeopardy because the state and the federal government are separate sovereigns. 

As a practical matter, however, defendants are usually charged in one court or the other depending on which law enforcement agency brought the case. 

What is a Conspiracy Under South Carolina Law?

Conspiracy in South Carolina is defined in South Carolina Code § 16-17-410 as “a combination between two or more persons for the purpose of accomplishing an unlawful object or lawful object by unlawful means.” 

What does that mean? It means that two or more people agreed to commit a crime.

It doesn’t have to be an explicit agreement, spelled out in writing or even in conversation. The agreement can be inferred from the circumstances. 

For example, if Joe sells Mary a kilo of cocaine that she is going to resell, Joe and Mary just conspired, without saying it out loud, to commit the crime of drug distribution and drug trafficking under South Carolina state law.

All participants in a criminal conspiracy must know that what they are doing is a crime, and have the intent to accomplish the unlawful goal of the conspiracy, whether that is drug distribution, a financial crime, or a robbery. 

Penalties for Conspiracy in South Carolina State Court

The penalties for conspiracy are separate from the penalties for any underlying charges. For example, you could be convicted and sentenced for conspiracy and convicted and sentenced for drug distribution or another underlying crime. 

The crime of conspiracy in South Carolina state court is a felony offense that carries up to five years in prison or a fine of up to five thousand dollars, but the penalty – fine or prison time – cannot be greater than the potential sentence for the underlying crime or crimes. 

Criminal Conspiracy Charges in Federal Court

As with state court charges for conspiracy, a federal conspiracy is when two or more people agree to commit a crime. 

Conspiracy is a common charge in federal court that often accompanies the substantive charge. For example, when a defendant is charged with drug distribution, they are usually also charged with conspiracy to distribute drugs along with co-defendants. 

As in state court, the agreement doesn’t have to be spelled out – it usually is not, and the agreement can be implied, but the defendant or a co-conspirator must have taken some act in furtherance of the conspiracy. 

The elements that the government must prove for a conspiracy conviction are:

  1. The person agreed with one or more other persons to commit a crime, 
  2. The person knowingly and voluntarily participated in the unlawful scheme, and
  3. The person – or a co-conspirator – committed an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy. 

The object of the conspiracy – the goal of the unlawful agreement to commit a crime – must be a federal crime. Otherwise, the conspiracy charges would be in the state court. 

Overt Act in Furtherance of the Conspiracy

The “overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy” doesn’t necessarily have to be an illegal action – it is any act that would move the conspiracy forward to accomplish the unlawful goals of the conspiracy. 

Also, every person in the conspiracy can be charged, not just the person who took action in furtherance of the conspiracy. 

For example:

Joe and Mary decide to buy a kilo of heroin and resell it. Mary drives to New York alone to buy the heroin. When she returns, she sells part of the kilo to John. Joe, Mary, and John can be charged in the same conspiracy even though Joe did not purchase, travel with, or even see the heroin, and even though John and Joe have never met and were not aware of one another’s participation in the crime. 

Withdrawal from the Conspiracy

Whether you are charged in federal court or state court, withdrawal from the conspiracy is an affirmative defense to these charges if you can prove that:

  1. You took some action that would show you quit the conspiracy, and
  2. You communicated to at least one other person in the conspiracy that you were quitting the conspiracy. 

Penalties for Conspiracy in Federal Court

The penalties for conspiracy in federal court are a bit more complicated than the penalties for conspiracy in state court. 

18 USC Section 371 provides two potential penalties for a federal conspiracy conviction:

  1. Up to five years in prison, or
  2. If the underlying crime is a misdemeanor offense, no more than the maximum potential penalty for the underlying offense. 

The potential sentence for the conspiracy charges, however, is usually much lower than the potential sentence a defendant may receive for the underlying charges. 

It is the underlying charges – for example, drug distribution or fraud charges – that define the sentencing range, and the underlying charges will often contain mandatory minimum prison sentences.

Unlike state court charges, the sentencing scheme found in the statute is only the beginning of the analysis in federal court, and the sentence that a defendant receives will often be determined by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Federal Sentencing Guidelines

In federal court, a defendant’s sentence is usually determined by the federal sentencing guidelines, which are based on:

  • A “base offense level” determined by the underlying charges, 
  • Adjustments to the base offense level – up or down – based on downward departures and sentencing enhancements found in the Guidelines, 
  • The defendant’s criminal history category, based on the number and type of prior convictions, and
  • Relevant conduct – the defendant will often be held accountable for the drug weight (in a drug case), financial loss (in a fraud case), or other “acts and omissions” of all participants in the conspiracy. 

The guidelines are “advisory only,” which means that the court must first calculate the defendant’s sentence based on the guidelines, and then sentence the defendant within the “guidelines range” unless the court articulates valid reasons for granting a “variance” up or down. 

In any case, a federal defendant cannot be sentenced to a greater period of incarceration than the maximum sentence or a lower sentence than the mandatory minimum sentence found in the statute for the underlying offenses. 

Questions About Conspiracy Charges in South Carolina?

If you are charged with conspiracy in federal court, you will need help from an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer immediately – before your arraignment if possible. Note that not every attorney is licensed to appear in federal court, and not every attorney who is licensed to appear in federal court has experience defending criminal cases in federal court. 

The criminal defense lawyers at Seaton & Duncan will investigate the allegations, answer your questions, and do everything legally and ethically possible to get your case dismissed, win your case at trial, or find a resolution that is fair and reasonable.

Call 843-761-3840 or use this form to contact us today to discuss your case and start working towards the best possible outcome for you.

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