An accomplice is someone who intentionally helps another in committing a crime. At common law, this type of activity is usually described as "aiding and abetting" or encouraging, procuring, soliciting, or advising the commission of the crime. An accomplice who assists or helps another commit the crime can get the same type of liability and punishment as the person who commits the actual crime. An accomplice must have a requisite mental state in committing or aiding in the commission of the crime. If the accomplice does not know whether they are committing or helping another commit the crime, they would not be held liable as an accomplice because they did not have the mental state of committing the crime.

What is the Liability of Accomplices?

Generally, one who is found to be an accomplice is deemed liable for the crimes committed by the primary party. Some courts even consider accomplices liable for other crimes that are a "natural and probable consequence" of the crime that the accomplice aided or abetted.

Accomplices can be liable for helping the commission of the crime, such as planning the crime or providing tools to commit the crime. Accomplices can also be liable for concealing the crime from the police, such as driving a getaway vehicle. Finally, certain persons can be an accomplice for failure to prevent certain criminal conduct; teachers and other school officers, for example, have an obligation to report child abuse if they suspect a student is being abused.

What Makes a Person an Accomplice?

There are four different categories of accomplices, based on the level of participation.

  • Principal in the first degree   This person either physically commits the crime or commits it by use of an innocent instrumentality or human agent.
  • Principal in the second degree   Such an accomplice intentionally helps another commit a crime while in the presence of the principal in the first degree (i.e. a "lookout").
  • Accessory before the fact   Such an accomplice is not present at the scene of the crime, but does solicit or command the principal in the first degree to commit the crime.
  • Accessory after the fact   Such an accomplice intentionally helps a guilty party to avoid arrest, trial, or conviction. The accessory after the fact provides aid after the crime is already committed.

Under accomplice liability principles, a principal in the second degree and an accessory before the fact are just as liable for the crimes committed as the principal in the first degree. However, today most jurisdictions view accessory after the fact as a separate and less serious offense than the crime committed by the principal in the first degree.

Can The Accomplice Be Punished To the Same Degree As The Perpetrator?

Accomplice sentencing is based on when the accomplice decided to join in on the crime. If the accomplice was part of the crime from the beginning or if the accomplice joins the criminals while the crime is still in progress, than the accomplice is subject to the same punishment as the perpetrators, the persons who actually commit the crime.

However, the accomplice aids the criminals after the crime is over, such as concealing evidence or the criminals themselves, than the accomplice cannot be charged with a higher sentence than the actual perpetrators.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that accomplices who are part of the original crime can be sentenced to death if a murder occurs during the original crime.

Are There Any Defenses To Accomplice Liability?

There are a number of defenses to accomplice liability. The defenses can include:

  • Duress – Accomplice liability can only be imposed if the person participated in the crime through his or her own free will
  • No Crime – Accomplice liability cannot be imposed if the actual perpetrators have not committed a crime
  • No Accomplishment – A person who doesn’t perform an act towards a crime cannot be charged with anything higher than criminal conspiracy
  • Intent – Some states require that the accomplice actually intended for an act to be committed; this defense is most successful if the accomplice is charged with liability through omission.
  • Foreseeability – Some states require that the crime be reasonably foreseeable before an accomplice can be charged for the actions of a perpetrator. This is most applicable to felony-murder.
  • Withdrawal – An accomplice who renounces commission of the crime before the crime begins may not be liable. An accomplice who renounces the crime while the crime is in progress can be given a lesser sentence. Some states may require that the former accomplice actively try to prevent the crime before the defense of withdrawal can be used.

Do I Need an Experienced Criminal Law Attorney?

If you believe you may fall under one of the categories of accomplices or if you have been accused of such a crime, it would be helpful to consult an attorney. A criminal attorney would be able to help you gather the evidence and put a case together.