Helping a Criminal and Accomplice Culpability

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 What is an Accomplice?

An accomplice is an individual who purposefully assists another individual with committing a crime. Under common law, this activity is usually referred to as aiding and abetting, in addition to other terms related to the commission of a crime, including:

  • Prompting;
  • Procuring;
  • Soliciting; or
  • Suggesting.

If an accomplice assists, or helps, another individual commit a criminal offense, they may have the same liability and receive the same punishment as the individual who perpetrated the offense. An accomplice is required to have a certain mental state related to the perpetration or aiding in the commission of the crime.

If the accomplice is not aware that they are committing the crime or assisting another individual with committing the crime, they may not be held liable as they did not have the requisite mental state to commit the offense.

What Makes a Person an Accomplice?

There are four classifications of an accomplice based upon their participation in the offense, including:

  • Principal in the first degree: This individual either physically commits the crime or commits it using an innocent instrumentality or human agent;
  • Principal in the second degree: This category of accomplice intentionally helps another individual commit a crime while in the presence of the principal in the first degree, for example, a lookout;
  • Accessory before the fact: This accomplice is not present at the crime scene but does solicit or command the principal in the first degree to commit the crime; and
  • Accessory after the fact: This accomplice deliberately helps the guilty party to avoid arrest, trial, or conviction. An accessory after the fact provides aid after the crime has already been committed.

Pursuant to the principles of accomplice liability, a principal in the second degree and an accessory before the fact are as just liable for the crime committed as the principal in the first degree. Nevertheless, the majority of jurisdictions consider an accessory after the fact as a distinct and lesser offense than the crime committed by the principal in the first degree.

What is the Liability of Accomplices?

As previously discussed, an accomplice assists a principal in committing a crime. The principal is the individual who actually commits the crime.

There are some courts that also consider an accomplice accountable for other crimes which are natural and probable consequences of the crime which the accomplice aided or abetted. An accomplice may be held liable for assisting in the commission of the crime, for example by planning the crime or providing tools to commit the crime.

An accomplice may also be held liable for concealing the offense from law enforcement, for example, for driving the getaway vehicle. An individual may also be held liable as an accomplice if they fail to stop certain criminal conduct.

School officials and teachers, for example, are required to report child abuse if they suspect a student is suffering from abuse.

What are the Elements of Being an Accomplice?

There are several elements which must be satisfied in order for an individual to be considered an accomplice, including:

  • A crime must be committed;
  • The individual must intend that the principal commit a crime and to assist the principal in committing that crime; and
  • The individual must perform an act which assists or aids the principal, for example:
    • supplying a gun or other weapon;
    • leading the victim to the principal; and
    • being a lookout.

What Types of Acts Give Rise to Liability?

There are three categories of assistance which may give rise to liability, including:

  • Physical conduct, for example:
    • Providing an instrumentality;
    • Driving a getaway car; or
    • Casing;
  • Omission, including:
    • Failing to stop the commission of the crime, if the individual had a duty to do so; and
  • Psychological influence, for example:

The actions of the accomplice must assist in the commission of the crime. If, for example, the accomplice encourages the commission of the crime but the principal is not aware of this encouragement, there is no accomplice liability.

It is important to note that even trivial assistance may be enough to constitute accomplice liability. In addition, even if the assistance from the accomplice was not necessary for the primary to commit the criminal offense, the accomplice can still be held responsible.

The omission to stop a crime is only considered a criminal act when the individual had a duty or was expected to take action but failed to do so. For example, if a nurse is aware that a physician is abusing an elderly patient but fails to report the abuse, that nurse may be as liable as the doctor.

What Kinds of Crimes Can an Accomplice be Convicted of?

Crimes as categorized from less serious petty offenses, such as simple thefts, to more serious crimes, such as drug trafficking and murder. Each jurisdiction as well as the federal courts have different ways of classifying these crimes from misdemeanors and disorderly conduct charges to felonies.

The term misdemeanor can include a wide range of criminal offenses and violations, including:

Some of these criminal offenses may be eligible for removal, or expungement, from an individual’s criminal record. The conditions and procedures required to obtain an expungement vary by jurisdiction so it is helpful to consult with a local attorney.

I Think I May be an Accomplice to a Crime, What can I be Convicted of?

If an individual is found to be an accomplice, they will be convicted of the same crime that the principal is convicted of. The individual will not be convicted for being an accomplice.

The law views an accomplice to be as guilty as the principal. Therefore, if an individual is an accomplice to a robbery, they will be convicted of robbery.

In addition, an individual may also be convicted for any other crimes which occur during the commission of the crime.

What if I Helped after the Crime was Committed, can I still be Convicted?

Yes, an individual can be convicted if they helped after the crime was committed. The individual will likely be convicted as an accessory after the fact.

This crime is a separate crime in the majority of states. It typically results in a significantly lighter punishment than the punishment for the actual crime committed.

In order to be an accessory after the fact, an individual must be aware that a felony was committed and then assist the felon in avoiding an arrest or trial.

I Have Been Accused of Being an Accomplice in a Crime, Do I Need a Lawyer?

Yes, any time you are charged with a crime, it is important to contact a lawyer as soon as possible. A criminal defense attorney can inform you of your rights as well as the complicated legal system as it relates to accomplice liability.

Your attorney can also attempt to negotiate with the prosecution in order to lower or even dismiss the charges against you, if possible. When you are required to appear in court, your attorney will represent you.

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