The Oxford Dictionary defines the word inchoate as describing something which has, “just begun and so not fully formed or developed.” When applied to the field of law enforcement, this word refers to a type of offense—such as incitement or conspiracy—that is, “anticipating a further criminal act.” Inchoate offenses are a type of crime that takes a step towards the commitment of another crime and are often related to the planning of a future criminal act. These types of offenses are punishable by law not only to penalize the offenders, but also to prevent future crimes from occurring. Examples of inchoate offenses include attempt, solicitation, and conspiracy.
The target crime is the crime that is intended to result from the inchoate offense. It is important to note, however, that inchoate offenses can be punished regardless of whether or not the crime is actually committed. Inchoate offenses are punishable even if the attempt to commit a crime has not been completed and can even include the possession of certain items (specifically, weapons or large sums of cash) that imply that a crime is going to be committed. Additionally, in most cases, inchoate offenses are charged (and punished) often to the same—or very similar—degree as the crime that they intend to commit.
Oftentimes, an inchoate offense leads directly into the target crime. If the defendant is charged with the target crime, they cannot also be charged with the attempt to commit that crime. Conspiracy remains the exception to this rule, as you can be charged with conspiracy to commit a crime in addition to the crime itself should it be committed.
Because inchoate offenses often involve the possession of otherwise legal objects as well as a verbal component to them, prosecutors often run into constitutional defenses based on the merits of free speech, search and seizure, and due process, which lead to some complex and difficult questions.
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