This week’s Friday Favorite is about some teenagers trying to avoid bad grades by cheating, then getting caught. Fail! On Thursday, three Palos Verdes High School juniors were arrested on suspicion of breaking into classrooms, hacking into four teachers’ computers and changing their grades online. They also reportedly broke into classrooms late at night to steal hard copies of tests from teachers’ desks, which they would then sell to other students.
They were able to get into teachers’ classrooms because they picked the lock of the janitor’s office and took a master key! They then got into password protected computers by using “keyloggers” which recorded the teachers’ user names and passwords that were typed on their keyboards. Up to 12 students could be implicated in grade-tampering or for receiving stolen tests.
There are several crimes here, such as several counts of burglary, several counts of receiving stolen property, several counts of petty theft, and conspiracy.
Let’s talk about conspiracy because it is actually a very serious crime. Conspiracy takes place when one agrees with one or more people to commit a crime, and one of them commits an overt act in furtherance of that agreement. Any member of the conspiracy may commit the overt act, which doesn’t have to be criminal.
An overt act is an act that is done in order to help accomplish the agreed upon crime. Here, the students face Conspiracy to Commit Burglary charges. The overt act would probably be attaching the “keyloggers” to the computers; those “keyloggers” resembled USB drives. This act helped accomplish the crime of burglary. All of the teenagers in this cheating scandal can be convicted as co-conspirators even if they didn’t all know each other.
Typical defenses include that there was no agreement, there was no overt act, a defendant withdrew from the conspiracy, the defendant operated under mistake of law, or the defendant was falsely accused. It is important to understand that these teenagers can be convicted of conspiracy without ever having to be convicted of burglary. Burglary and Conspiracy to commit burglary are two separate charges. Key defenses that may be used by these teens are that there was no agreement, or that a particular teenager withdrew, or that one was falsely accused.
Even if a teenager in this case conspired to commit a crime, he is not guilty of conspiracy if he truly and affirmatively rejected the conspiracy and communicated that rejection to the co-conspirators. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are text messages that say “I’m out” or “I’m not going along with this.” However, those text messages or other communications must be delivered before someone commits an overt act in furtherance of the crime. If anyone waited until after the “keyloggers” were attached to the computers then they did not effectively withdraw from the conspiracy. That communication – after the overt act – can still save the individual from being held liable for any crimes that are committed after communicating his withdrawal.
What makes conspiracy even more dangerous is that members of a conspiracy are criminally responsible for all of the crimes that are committed by any of the co-conspirators if they are committed in furtherance of the conspiracy. This is true even when the members are not aware of the other crimes. This means that if some teenagers agreed to the burglary but didn’t agree to selling the tests, they are still on the hook for selling the stolen property.
Here, the teenagers facing conspiracy to commit burglary would be facing the same penalties that are imposed in connection with the burglary charge alone. The burglary charge for the Palos Verdes High School teenagers would be second degree burglary as a felony, and they each would face sixteen months, or two years or three years in state prison and a maximum fine of $10,000.
Read the story here.