5 minute read

Conspiracy

The Elements Of Conspiracy Agreement

The essence of conspiracy is the agreement between two or more persons. A single person acting alone cannot be guilty of conspiracy.

Quiz Show Conspiracies

In the 1950s, the new medium of television was fast becoming a staple in U.S. households, and quiz shows, with their low production costs and high-stakes drama, were enjoying immense popularity. Contestants on quiz shows played until they lost; some competed for months and won tens of thousands of dollars. The quiz show concept of rewarding intelligence with instant wealth appealed to the U.S. public and inspired many to seek an invitation to play.

In May 1958, Edward Hilgemeier was in the studio audience of the quiz show "Dotto" when he was approached by a "Dotto" producer. The producer asked if Hilgemeier would like to compete on the show. Hilgemeier, an aspiring actor, accepted the offer. On May 20, he went to the "Dotto" set as a standby contestant.

Marie Winn, a student at Columbia University, was the defending champion of "Dotto." A charming, animated native of Czechoslovakia, the twenty-one-year-old Winn had won "Dotto" on two consecutive nights. As Hilgemeier waited for his possible turn against Winn, he got the impression that studio personnel were unduly familiar with the woman.

Winn's first challenger that day was Yeffe Kimball Slatin. Hilgemeier watched as Winn defeated Slatin with ease; Winn seemed to have every answer at hand. After the contest between Winn and Slatin, Hilgemeier returned to the contestants' dressing room, where he discovered a notebook belonging to Winn that appeared to contain answers to "Dotto" questions. Hilgemeier notified Slatin, and the two returned to the dressing room, where one of them tore the apparent answer sheet out of Winn's notebook.

That night, after speaking to Slatin's lawyer, Hilgemeier and Slatin went to the "Dotto" offices, where they spoke with the show's producers. The "Dotto" producers promised compensation to both Hilgemeier and Slatin. Slatin agreed to stay quiet about the affair for a nominal sum of money from "Dotto," but Hilgemeier, fearing for his reputation, refused. Hilgemeier took his information to Manhattan district attorney Frank Hogan and assistant district attorney Joseph Stone.

Initially, the Manhattan district attorney's office was skeptical of Hilgemeier's complaint. The rigging of quiz shows was, after all, not illegal. Shortly into the investigation, however, it became apparent to Hogan and Stone that a widespread conspiracy was in place to hide the truth from the public—and conspiracy to commit FRAUD wasillegal.

The Manhattan district attorney's office convened GRAND JURY hearings, and a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives held congressional hearings on the quiz shows' practices. Many producers and contestants lied to the grand jury and the congressional subcommittee about their role in quiz show trickery. On October 14, 1959, their elaborate web of deceit began to unravel when Charles Van Doren, a Columbia University professor, admitted to the subcommittee his involvement in a rigged quiz show, "Twenty-One." (This incident was the basis of Robert Redford's 1995 film Quiz Show.)

Quiz show producers and contestants eventually admitted their subterfuge to authorities. What emerged were stories of how favored quiz show contestants were coached to agonize and sweat over answers they already knew. On August 30, 1960, the U.S. Congress passed a bill that made giving or receiving assistance on a quiz show a federal crime. The bill was signed into law by President DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER two weeks later. Now, under 47 U.S.C.A. § 509, it is a federal crime to rig quiz shows with the intent to deceive the listening or viewing public. Under 18 U.S.C.A. § 371, a conspiracy to engage in prohibited practices regarding radio and television quiz shows is also a federal crime.

However, if a coconspirator dies prior to the indictment or trial, the surviving coconspirator may still be charged with conspiracy. A HUSBAND AND WIFE can be guilty of conspiracy. A corporation is considered a person for conspiracy purposes, so a corporation can be guilty of conspiracy, but it cannot conspire with itself. For example, if two or more employees within a corporation conspire to break the law and subsequently commit an act in furtherance of the conspiracy, the corporation itself is not criminally liable for conspiracy.

The agreement must be made voluntarily and with an intent to participate in furthering a common purpose. Mere knowledge or approval, in the absence of an actual agreement to cooperate, does not constitute conspiracy.

Once an agreement with criminal intent is made, the conspiracy is complete, unless the applicable statute requires the additional element of an overt act. The agreement need not be written or formal, and it may be proved by CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE. A tacit understanding is sufficient to constitute agreement, even if no words are spoken that expressly communicate the conspiracy. Conspiracy exists if there is some form of mutual understanding between persons working together with a common unlawful end.

Intent Criminal intent is also necessary to create a conspiracy. This means that the parties must intend both to agree on and to engage in the unlawful act. Ignorance of the law is not usually a defense to a crime, but an unwitting conspirator may defend against conspiracy charges on grounds of ignorance. Ignorance will not be a defense if the person continues to participate in the common plan after learning of its illegality.

Either the purpose of the agreement or the means by which it is accomplished must be illegal to support criminal prosecution on conspiracy charges. If the purpose is unlawful, the offense is committed even if the means used to achieve the purpose are lawful. One illustration is where a noncustodial parent conspires with another person to KIDNAP the parent's child, and the child is abducted during a court-approved visit. Conspiracy also occurs if the purpose of the agreement is lawful but the means used to achieve it are illegal. For example, if a custodial parent chooses to retrieve a child who has been kidnapped by the noncustodial parent, an agreement to use unlawful force constitutes conspiracy.

Overt Act An overt act can be any step that indicates that the execution of the conspiracy has begun. This can be an innocuous act and need not be illegal unto itself. For example, if two persons agree to rob a bank, then purchase a ski mask, the act of buying the mask may constitute the overt act required to charge the two with conspiracy.

The overt act must follow the agreement and must be executed with an intent to carry out the purpose of the conspiracy. For example, if one of the potential bank robbers buys a ski mask after the agreement is made, the purchase may not constitute the overt act if the ski mask will not be worn to carry out the ROBBERY. An overt act need not be committed by each and every conspirator; an overt act by one conspirator solidifies the offense for all coconspirators. Thus, a conspirator who does not participate in the overt act can be charged with conspiracy.

If a conspirator completely and voluntarily renounces the criminal purpose to all conspirators, that person may withdraw from the conspiracy before the overt act is committed. Many jurisdictions require that the withdrawing conspirator also inform law enforcement officials or take measures to thwart the crime, in order to avoid criminal liability for the conspiracy.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Companies House to ConstituencyConspiracy - The Elements Of Conspiracy Agreement, Quiz Show Conspiracies, Other Considerations, History Of Conspiracy, American Honda Conspiracy