Accessory to a crime refers to a person who knowingly and voluntarily participates in the commission of a crime. They can be categorized as before the crime or after the commission of the crime, and they need not be actually present at the scene of the crime in order to be held liable. The person actually committing the crime is referred to as the “principal”, whereas the person participating in the commissioning is referred to as an “accessory”.
An accomplice is similar to an accessory to a crime, but the two are different. An accomplice is someone who has intentionally helped another person commit a crime. As they assist or help another person commit a crime, they may have the same liability and punishment as the principal, or the person who commits the actual crime. The difference lies in that an accessory is generally not present when the crime is being committed, whereas an accomplice is present when the crime is being committed. Additionally, an accessory to a crime may be subject to fewer or less severe penalties than an accomplice.
The differences between an accessory to a crime and a conspiracy can vary. In general, during a conspiracy, the conspirator and another person plan to commit a crime in the future. However, the crime does not actually have to ever be committed or even be started. Once the conspirators have agreed to commit a crime, and both intend for the crime to actually be committed, a conspiracy has occurred.
As previously mentioned, a person may be an accessory to a crime before the crime is committed, or they may be an accessory after the fact. An accessory after the fact is a person who assists another person in escaping or evading arrest after the commission of a crime has taken place. The accessory after the fact may not have been part of the original crime, but could also face criminal charges if they aided in the escape of the other defendants.
How Can a Person Be an Accessory to a Felony Crime?
To further differentiate between an accessory before the fact, and an accessory after the fact, an accessory to a crime before the fact is one who:
- Incites; and/or
- Encourages another person in the commission of a crime.
An example of this would be a person preparing a weapon for an assault, or provides the matches for someone else to commit arson.
An accessory after the fact is someone who:
- Relieves; and/or
- Assists a felon once a crime has already been committed.
An example of this would be the driver of a getaway car. Assistance may be financial, material, or even emotional support of the principal actor.
The elements that designate a person as an accessory to a crime vary from state to state according to their own statutes. In general, for a person to be convicted for being an accessory to a felony, the prosecutor will need to prove that the following three elements have been met:
- The crime was actually committed by another, different individual;
- The defendant assisted with, helped, encouraged, or aided the other person in the commission of the crime; and
- The defendant intentionally acted for the crime to be committed.
The prosecutor needs to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the person accused had knowledge that the crime was to be committed or was already committed. Additionally, they need to prove that the defendant acted intentionally to assist the principal in their offense. A person who unknowingly shelters a person who committed a felony will not likely be found guilty of being an accessory after the fact.
Generally, the crime does not have to actually be committed to completion. As long as the defendant aided the principal in committing the crime, and intended for the crime to be committed to completion, the defendant may be found guilty of being an accessory to a crime.
What Is an Accessory to a Felony Crime?
An accessory charge in and of itself is not generally a felony, as a felony is a serious type of crime such as homicide. Being an accessory to a felony crime may lead to non violent felony charges, which will be included in a person’s criminal record. This matters because having a felony charge on a criminal record can lead to loss of various privileges and freedoms, such as being able to own a firearm and having the right to vote. An accessory to a felony crime will generally receive a less severe sentence than what the principal will likely receive.
Federal laws dictate that the penalties for an accessory to a felony crime are not to exceed half of the maximum prison sentence or fine that the principal receives. Should the principal receive a death sentence, the accessory may be incarcerated for a maximum of up to fifteen years. States may have their own laws governing accessories to a felony.
Do I Need an Attorney for an Accessory to a Crime Charge?
If you are being accused of being an accessory to a crime, you should immediately consult with a skilled and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney.
An experienced criminal defense attorney in your area can educate you on your rights as well as any defenses available to your specific circumstances. Additionally, an attorney can prepare the details of your case and potentially negotiate a reduced sentence. Finally, an attorney may represent you in court as needed.