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The crime of conspiracy is a limitation on free speech in the united states. Merely talking about, in fine detail, a crime can get one charged with conspiracy.

It is slightly more complicated than that, for a conviction, but the point is, this chills free speech and makes it very difficult and is a deterrent for a fiction writer to get the details necessary for accuracy to allow for the suspension of disbelief

How does one hash out their ideas for the elaborate crimes in their book or any other expressive medium, with peace of mind?

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4 Answers 4

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Not online.

  • Try a writer's group, where it is absolutely and explicitly clear that you are discussing this in the service of a story, and where other folks are discussing things just as potentially problematic.
  • One writer I work with is writing a crime story and actually paid a retired detective as a consultant to make sure she got her details right. She interviewed him extensively and went over her story bit by bit to make sure it was feasible.
  • You also might find true-crime books (or blogs?) to be useful, where someone else has already put down the details you need, and you can adapt as necessary.

John Rogers, one of the creators of the late and much-lamented Leverage, sometimes jokes on his blog that the things he'd had to research online probably have him on every government watch list in existence, because Leverage was about five master criminals acting as Robin Hoods — committing elaborate cons and crimes to help innocent people.

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yes, writers groups but for my research I wish to contact lawyers, detectives, accountants, the works. But then common sense makes me not, unless I can find a way to keep it state-sanctioned –  CQM Mar 2 '13 at 17:31
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Why not contact lawyers, detectives, accountants, and so on? Have you personally been threatened with an indictment of conspiracy as a direct result of book research? Has a lawyer warned you not to talk about certain things for fear of indictment? I wonder if you are operating on hearsay and TV law rather than actual statutes. Rogers, above, has never been threatened with conspiracy, and he did plan crimes for five years. I suggest you read his blog. –  Lauren Ipsum Mar 2 '13 at 21:04

I have to wonder if "merely talking about" crimes, no matter what the level of detail, can result in a charge of conspiracy. Almost everyone talks about crimes at some level, because they are a matter of general interest. Those involved in the investigation of crimes talk about them in massive detail at great length. And crime writers research, talk about, and write about crimes extensively. All of this happens without anyone being accused of conspiracy. So even though merely discussing a crime might be considered conspiracy, I think you have to assume that the crime discussed would have to be committed before you would have any genuine cause for concern. Believe me, the thousands of people who write about crime research it, talk about it, and pick the brains of all kinds of experts in the field, all the time. They don't worry about this issue, and neither should you.

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Not to mention all the people who read crime novels or watch crime shows on TV and talk about them. I'll bet millions of people have, at one point or another, said something like, "You know, if I was going to kill somebody, I wouldn't do that, I'd ..." –  Jay Mar 4 '13 at 15:29

I have never heard of someone being charged with a crime because he discussed a hypothetical crime for a work of fiction.

I guess it's easy enough to imagine two writers discussing plot details for a book who are accidentally overheard by someone who thinks they are plotting a real crime. Frankly though, if the police came by and you explained that you were working on a book, and there was no other evidence that you were planning an actual crime, I think the incident would be promptly dropped. Maybe, possibly, they would put a note in a file somewhere so that if such a crime was actually committed, they'd come back looking for you. The police have enough crimes that have actually occurred that they must investigate that they can't spend much time on so-and-so thinks his neighbor is plotting a crime. Conspiracy tends to be a charge made after the crime is committed, not before. About the only conspiracies that police investigate before a crime is committed are threats against the president and terrorist attacks.

It is not a crime to discuss crime hypothetically. People do it all the time. If a prosecutor tried to charge you with conspiracy, they would need more than just, you were heard in a public place saying, "Suppose someone wanted to kill his wife ..." They'd have to show that you actually bought the poison or hired a hit man or something of the sort. I suppose if your research includes buying bomb-making components to see what they look like and how they fit together, and you assemble a bomb in your garage, and you're overheard asking about Governor Jones travel schedule and security arrangements, and you rent an apartment overlooking the square where the governor plans to give a speech and the police find the place empty except for a chair and a sniper rifle, etc, the explanations might become more difficult.

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The scenario that Jay describes begins to sound like the plot of Strong Poison, in which poor Harriet Vane DID buy poison under assumed names as research for her novel, and then her lover was poisoned... and she was tried. But the point is that she was in a mystery novel. :-) –  Anna M Mar 4 '13 at 20:12
    
I was thinking that the whole idea of someone researching crime for a novel and then a similar crime is actually committed and the writer becomes a suspect could make an interesting crime story of itself, but that it was obvious enough that it had probably already been done. Apparently so. :-) –  Jay Mar 5 '13 at 17:26
    
Once I was buying some rat poison and as I was checking out I had this sudden impulse to say to the clerk, "How much of this poison would it take to kill a person? I mean, like, if some of it got in her coffee. Accidentally. By mistake." It could have been a funny funny joke until I was arrested. –  Jay Mar 5 '13 at 17:29
    
Yes, be careful-- the jury in Harriet Vane's case thought her story "pretty thin" because they didn't understand the life of a writer. –  Anna M Mar 5 '13 at 17:44

From the Official Code of Georgia (Annotated): A person commits the offense of conspiracy to commit a crime when he together with one or more persons conspires to commit any crime and any one or more of such persons does any overt act to effect the object of the conspiracy... (OCGA 16-4-8). Further, in the 'annotated' portion of the code, "Conspiracy to commit particular substantive offense cannot exist without at least the degree of criminal intent necessary for substantive offense itself."

This lets you off the hook in two different directions. First, in order to commit the crime of conspiracy, you or someone else would have to take actual steps towards committing the underlying crime (i.e. the overt act element).

Secondly, and more importantly, Conspiracy is a specific intent crime, meaning there is a state of mind element required. This is referred to as the Mens Rea (literally, 'Guilty Mind'). You can't commit conspiracy accidentally, you have to intend to actually commit the crime and you have to intend to conspire to do so.

This is based off the Georgia state legal code, but it is representative of the criminal code elsewhere.

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What isn't ambiguous is that conspiracy is a much more definitive act than what you describe, and it does require action, not merely talk. Just talking about a crime doesn't even come close. Really, you are far more concerned about this than you need to be. The "he was just too close to doing it" example isn't even remotely the way law enforcement works. I have family and friends in law enforcement, and I can assure you, it just doesn't work that way. You SHOULD talk to someone in law enforcement and get them to explain why you have no reason to worry. –  John M. Landsberg Mar 5 '13 at 5:22
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I think you're closer to the truth with the idea of tacking conspiracy on as a separate charge to increase the potential sentence. The only time I think it would be charged alone is if 1. It's the only crime of several they can prove (Al Capone style) or 2. They're trying to get you to talk about someone else (Your boyfriend a killer, Sally. Tell us where he is or you're going down for abetting, maybe even conspiracy!) In both cases, the charge is political, a means to an end. The charge is not being brought for itself. –  Lazarus Mar 5 '13 at 16:17
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Now that I think of it, both of my above examples are flawed. They still require a finding of some other crime. Say you're arrested for attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder. The jury deliberates and finds you not guilty of the attempted murder. As a matter of law, you're then innocent of the conspiracy as you can't 'conspire' to do something if the thing (in this case the attempt) was never done. Sally and Al, above, could still be in trouble, but it would require that the police can prove the other criminal acts. –  Lazarus Mar 5 '13 at 16:21
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And, CQM, I really don't think other people approach this problem in any way at all, because there just isn't any problem to begin with. Crime writers interview and talk with anyone they like, and they don't worry about your postulated problem. Do all the talking and researching you want; if you never are involved in an actual crime, you'll never be charged with conspiracy. By the way, many police forces offer citizens the opportunity to "ride along" with an officer on duty. It's incredibly fascinating, and you can pick the officer's brain all you want. –  John M. Landsberg Mar 5 '13 at 23:55
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@Lazarus I see what you mean. But let's not get CQM worried all over again. It COULD happen that one can be charged with conspiracy in that way, but ONLY if the crime one is accused of conspiring to commit has actually taken place -- or some closely associated crime adequate to prove the conspiracy. (e.g. Two people conspire to murder, the attempt is made, the victim is assaulted but not killed and it is clear from the assault that the intent was murder. AND conspiracy can be demonstrated.) Can't go into the subtle legalities here, but the point remains: Crime writers shouldn't worry about it. –  John M. Landsberg Mar 7 '13 at 6:13

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