An accessory to a crime is a person who participates knowingly and voluntarily in the commission of a crime. An accessory can be categorized as before or after the fact (the commission of the crime).   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 called the “principal”.

How Can One Be an Accessory to a Felony Crime?

An accessory before the fact is one who aids, abets, assists, incites, or encourages another person in the commission of the crime (such as one who prepares a weapon for an assault or provides the matches for arson). An accessory after the fact is someone who shelters, relieves, or assists a felon after a crime has already been committed (such as the driver of a getaway car). Assistance can take the form of financial, material, or even emotional support of the principal actor. 

The elements for one to be an accessory to a crime varies from state to state. In order to convict a person for being an accessory to a felony, a prosecutor must be able to prove that the following four elements:

  • The crime was committed by another individual
  • The defendant assisted, helped, encouraged, or aided the other person in the commission of the crime
  • The defendant acted with intent for the crime to be completed

In most cases, the crime does not have to be actually completed to completion. As long as the defendant aided the other person in committing the crime and had intent for the crime to be completed, then the defendant could be found as being an accessory to the crime.

What Is the Difference Between an Accessory to a Crime and a Conspiracy?

The differences between being a accessory to a crime and committing a conspiracy varies. During a conspiracy, the conspirator and another person plan on committing a crime in the future. The crime does not actually have to be committed or even have to be started. Once the conspirators make an agreement to commit a crime and both have intent for the crime to actually be committed, than a conspiracy has occurred.

On the other hand, an accomplice or a accessory to a crime has to actually take an active role in the commission of the crime by aiding or assisting.

What About an Accessory to a Felony Crime?

Felony crimes are very serious types of crimes and are punishable by sentences of over one year in prison. Common types of felonies can include homicide crimes, drug violations, sexual assault crimes, and serious property crimes such as arson.   

An accessory charge is generally not in itself a felony. However, being an accessory to a felony crime can lead to non-violent felony charges, which will be noted on one’s criminal record. This is important, because having a felony charge on a criminal record can sometimes lead to a loss of various privileges, such as being able to own a firearm. An accessory to a felony crime will usually receive a sentence that is less severe than the sentence for the principal actor. 

Federal laws state that the penalties for an accessory to a felony are not to exceed half of the maximum prison time or fine that the principal receives. If the principal receives a death sentence, the accessory may be incarcerated for up to 15 years maximum. States may also have their own individual laws governing accessories to a crime.  

What Must be Proven for a Person to be Guilty as an Accessory?

A prosecutor would need to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the accused had knowledge that the crime was about to be committed, or has already been committed. Additionally, they would need to prove that the defendant intentionally acted to assist the criminal in their offense. 

For example, one who unknowingly provides shelter to a person who committed a felon will not be held guilty of being an accessory after the fact. This is because they did not have knowledge that a felony had been committed.  

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you have been charged with being an accessory to a crime, it is important that you contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. An attorney can help you prepare the details of your case and may be able to negotiate for a reduced sentence. If felony charges, inquire with an attorney as to whether your record can be expunged or deleted after the required time period. Some courts provide such measures for first-time offenders.