I show that the Pinkerton rule in conspiracy law is doctrinally and morally flawed. Unlike past critics of the rule, I propose a statutory fix that preserves and reforms it rather than abolishing it entirely. As I will show, this accommodates authors like Neil Katyal who have defended the rule as an important crime fighting tool while also fixing most of the traditional problems with it identified by critics like Wayne LaFave.
Pinkerton is a vicarious liability rule that makes conspirators criminally responsible for the foreseeable crimes of their coconspirators committed in furtherance of the conspiracy. It has two big problems: (1) Doctrinally, it breaks the logic of the many state criminal codes that are based on the Model Penal Code. (2) Ethically, it infringes the culpability constraint on the criminal law by imposing excessive punishments on defendants who did not even consciously suspect that their coconspirators would commit additional crimes that were not the object of the conspiracy.
These problems are most acute in Texas, where Pinkerton can be combined with capital murder charges to produce automatic life without parole sentences. The Texas example is an extreme illustration of the problem of unintended consequences when state legislators tinker with the carefully drafted, interlocking provisions of a model code. The new statute I propose would put the penal code back in order and respect the culpability constraint. In the latter aspect, it is informed by leading work in philosophical ethics on blameworthiness and culpability.