Inchoate crimes, also known as incomplete crimes, are acts taken toward committing a crime or acts that constitute indirect participation in a crime. Although these acts are not themselves crimes, they are illegal because they are conducted in furtherance of a crime, and society wishes to deter individuals from taking such steps. Three primary inchoate crimes are attempt, conspiracy, and aiding and abetting.
Attempt is the act of trying to commit a crime and failing. Because attempt can involve very serious crimes, like murder, it is often seen as the most serious of the inchoate crimes. Criminal attempt has three requirements. First, the person must have had the specific intent to commit the actual crime. Second, the person must take actions in furtherance of the crime. Third, the crime must not have been completed. If it was completed, the individual would be charged with the actual crime and not attempt.
Conspiracy occurs when two or more people agree to commit a crime together. Thus, conspiracy requires two or more participants. One person cannot singly conspire to commit a crime. In many states, conspiracy also requires that the individuals conspiring have carried out an obvious act in furtherance of the criminal plan. Unlike with attempt, a defendant can be charged for both conspiracy to commit a crime and the actual crime itself. These are seen as two separate offenses in criminal law.
Aiding and Abetting
Aiding and abetting is an inchoate crime that applies to individuals who, while usually not present for the crime itself, may have assisted the crime in some way either before or after the fact. A person who aids and abets a crime may also be known as an accessory to the crime. Aiding and abetting requires that the individual had the intent to assist in the commission of the crime. Someone who is merely present while a crime occurs and does nothing is not considered an accomplice to the crime.
Defenses to Inchoate Crimes
Several unique defenses are available to individuals charged with committing an inchoate crime. First, a defendant may argue that he abandoned his efforts to commit a crime and did not attempt or conspire to commit the crime. Abandonment requires a showing that the person completely and voluntarily stopped all actions in furtherance of the actual crime. Second, defendant may argue that there is a legal impossibility. This means that what the person is charged with intending to do is not actually a crime. For instance, a hunter who shoots at a deer and misses, almost hitting another hunter, could argue legal impossibility if he was charged with attempted murder. At the time he shot his gun, he only intended to shoot at the deer and this was not a crime. Finally, a defendant may argue factual impossibility. Factual impossibility applies when there are circumstances that make it impossible to complete the intended crime. For instance, if a man intends to commit arson and buys all the necessary supplies, but, unbeknownst to him, the building is demolished the next day, he could argue factual impossibility if charged with attempted arson. In some states, however, factual impossibility is not a defense, as courts rely on the fact that the person still had the intent to commit the crime itself.