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CRS – Attempt – An Overview of Federal Criminal Law

Attempt: An Overview of Federal Criminal Law, Updated May 13, 2020: “Attempt is the incomplete form of some other underlying offense. Unlike state law, federal law does not feature a general attempt statute. Instead, federal law outlaws the attempt to commit a number of federal underlying offenses on an individual basis. Occasionally, federal law treats attempt-like conduct as an underlying offense; outlawing possession of drugs with intent to traffic, for instance. One way or another, it is a federal crime to attempt to commit nearly all of the most frequently occurring federal offenses. Attempt consists of two elements. One is the intent to commit the underlying offense. The other is taking some substantial step, beyond mere preparation, collaborative of the intent to commit the underlying offense. The line between mere preparation and a substantial step can be hard to identify. Some suggest that the more egregious the underlying offense, the sooner preparation will become a substantial step. Defenses are few and rarely recognized. Impossibility to complete an attempted offense offers no real obstacle to conviction. Abandonment of the effort once the substantial-step line has been crossed is no defense. Entrapment may be a valid defense when the government has induced commission of the crime and the defendant lacks predisposition to engage in the criminal conduct. The penalties for attempt and for the underlying offense are almost always the same. The United States Sentencing Guidelines may operate to mitigate the sentences imposed for attempts to commit the most severely punished underlying offenses. Attempt to commit a particular crime overlaps with several other grounds for criminal liability. The offense of conspiracy, for example, is the agreement of two or more to commit an underlying offense at some time in the future. Attempt does not require commission of the underlying offense; nor does conspiracy. Attempt requires a substantial step; conspiracy may, but does not always, require an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy. A defendant may be convicted of both an underlying offense and conspiracy to commit that offense. A defendant may be convicted of either an attempt to commit an underlying offense or the underlying offense, but not both. A defendant may be convicted of both attempt and conspiracy to commit the same underlying crime. Aiding and abetting is not a separate crime. Aiders and abettors (accomplices before the fact) are treated as if they committed the underlying offense themselves. Aiding and abetting requires a completed underlying offense; attempt does not. The punishment for aiding and abetting is the same as for hands-on commission of the offense; the punishment for attempt is often the same as for the underlying offense. A defendant may convicted of attempting to aid and abet or of aiding and abetting an attempted offense.Attempt and its underlying offense are distinct crimes. A defendant may not be convicted of both attempt and its underlying offense. Completion of the underlying offense is no defense to a charge of attempt.”

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