Published in Criminal Law on October 28, 2016.
The terms accomplices, accessories, and aiders and abettors are often used in referring to a concept known as “accomplice liability.” Generally, this means that if you knowingly help another person commit a crime, you can also be held responsible for that crime, regardless of your role in it. Accomplice liability allows a court to find a person criminally liable for acts committed by a different person, even if that person has not been prosecuted for or convicted of that crime.
Prosecutors must prove the following elements in order to convict someone of being an accomplice, or “aiding and abetting”:
- A crime was committed by another individual;
- The defendant “aids, induces, or causes” another person to commit the crime;
- The defendant acted with the requisite mental state of “knowingly” or “intentionally” aiding a person in the commission of the crime.
The “principal in the first degree” or “principal” is the person who actually commits the crime. For example, the principal in the first degree is the person who fires the gun that kills a homicide victim. The accomplice helps the principal commit the crime, even if the accomplice only helps a little bit.
Some examples of actions giving rise to accomplice liability:
- Being a “lookout” for police and witnesses while the crime is being committed
- Loaning money, weapons, or other objects for use in the commission of the crime
- Hiding the person or evidence being sought by police
- Encouraging the principal to complete the crime
Types of Accomplices
There are different types of accomplices that can be held responsible for another person’s criminal act:
- Principal in the Second Degree – The “principal in the second degree” is a person who is at the scene of the crime and who knowingly or intentionally helps the principal in the first degree commit the crime. For example, Alan robs a bank. Bob stands guard at the door, while Chuck waits outside in the “getaway” car ready to drive all three of them away. While Alan is the one who actually committed the robbery, Bob and Chuck may also be held responsible for the robbery as principals in the second degree.
- Accessory Before the Fact – An “accessory before the fact” is the one who knowingly or intentionally helps a person commit a crime, but who is not at the actual scene of the crime. For example, Ashley asks Brenda to murder Cindy, and provides Brenda with a gun for the purpose of killing Cindy. Two days later, Brenda shoots and kills Cindy. Ashley is an accessory before the fact because she furnished the gun to Brenda intending that she use it to kill Cindy, even though Ashley was not present at the time Cindy was killed. Although Brenda committed Cindy’s murder, Ashley may also be convicted of the murder based on being an accessory before the fact.
- Accessory After the Fact – An “accessory after the fact” is a person who knowingly or intentionally helps someone avoid arrest, trial or conviction after a crime has already occurred. Suppose that Alan robs a bank and is running from the police. Alan runs to his friend Brad’s house and asks to stay there overnight while the police are looking for him. If Brad is aware that Alan robbed a bank and is being sought by police, Brad would be an accessory after the fact and could also be held responsible for the robbery. If Brad was unaware of Alan’s involvement in the robbery, he would not be responsible for the crime as an accessory after the fact.
Defenses to Accomplice Liability
An accomplice must provide active aid, counsel, encouragement or assistance toward the commission of a crime. Thus, if a person is merely present at the scene of a crime, but takes no active steps toward assisting the perpetrator, he or she will likely not be found to be an accomplice. In addition, the principal needs to be aware that the other person is helping them in the commission of a crime. If the principal does not know of the other person’s assistance, accomplice liability will not be found.
Withdrawal is a common defense that is raised when determining accomplice liability. In some cases, accomplice liability can be negated, or canceled, if the accomplice withdraws their support before the crime is committed. This will depend on the nature of the aid that was provided in the first place, and what actions were taken to in order to withdraw that assistance. For example, if the accomplice provided mere encouragement in the form of words, the person may not be held liable if they later discourage the principal from completing the crime. However, if the accomplice went beyond mere encouragement and provided active, physical assistance in the crime, he or she will need to attempt to neutralize any further commission of the crime.
Do I Need a Lawyer?
Accomplice liability is serious and can be very complex. If you are involved in any way with accomplice liability charges, you should seek experienced legal assistance immediately. The attorneys at Eskew Law LLC can help you determine whether you could be held liable as an accomplice and whether any defenses may be raised to help you avoid liability.