An accomplice is someone who purposefully helps another in committing a crime. In common law, this type of activity is usually described as “aiding and abetting” or prompting, procuring, soliciting, or suggesting the commission of the crime. An accomplice who helps or assists another commit the offense can get the same liability and punishment as the individual who perpetrates the actual crime.
An accomplice must have a requisite mental state in perpetrating 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 to commit the crime.
What Is the Liability of Accomplices?
Typically, one who is found to be an accomplice is deemed liable for the crimes committed by the primary party. Some courts even consider accomplices accountable for other crimes that are a “natural and probable consequence” of the crime that the accomplice aided or abetted.
Accomplices can be responsible 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 offense from the police, such as driving a getaway car. Finally, certain individuals can be an accomplice for failure to stop certain criminal conduct; teachers and other school officers, for example, must report child abuse if they suspect a student is being abused.
What Types of Acts Give Rise to Liability?
There are three categories of assistance:
- Physical conduct
- Providing an instrumentality
- Driving a getaway car
- Failing to stop the commission of the crime, if the individual had a duty to do so
- Psychological influence
The accomplice’s acts must assist in the commission of the crime. If, for instance, the accomplice encourages the commission of the crime, but the primary party does not know of this encouragement, there is no accomplice liability. Nevertheless, even trivial help will suffice for accomplice liability. Also, even if the second party’s assistance were not necessary for the primary party to commit the crime, the second party would still be responsible.
Omission to stop a crime is only a criminal act when a person had a duty or was expected to act but failed to do so. For instance, if a nurse knows that a physician is abusing an elderly patient but fails to report the abuse properly, the nurse may be as liable as the physician.
What Is the Pinkerton Doctrine?
In Pinkerton v. United States, the Supreme Court held that a co-conspirator is liable for any criminal act committed by others in the conspiracy if:
- The criminal act falls within the scope of the conspiracy; or
- The criminal act is a foreseeable consequence of the conspiratorial agreement.
The scope of the act refers to time and location. The conspiracy members could not be liable for another crime if the conspirators had only agreed to perform one specific offense. Still, then a member of the conspiracy committed another crime after the original crime was already over.
Resolving if a criminal act was foreseeable measures the relationship of the crime to the conspiracy agreement. If a conspirator goes off and pursues their own agenda during or after the agreed crime, then liability for the other conspirators can be cut off.
What Kinds of Crimes Can An Accomplice Be Convicted Of?
Criminal acts are classified from less serious petty offenses like simple theft to the most serious crimes like drug trafficking and murder. Every jurisdiction and the federal courts have different ways to classify these crimes, from misdemeanors and disorderly conduct charges to felonies.
The term misdemeanor may include an extensive range of criminal offenses and violations, including:
- Traffic offenses, particularly those involving drunk driving DUI/DWI;
- Assault and battery and other relatively minor offenses involving bodily harm;
- Theft, larceny, and other similar crimes involving property;
- Possession of a controlled substance and various drug crimes;
- Perjury crimes;
- Obscenity and other related crimes; and
- Gun possession violations.
Some of these crimes may be eligible for expungement or removal from an individual’s criminal record. The conditions and procedures for expungement vary by jurisdiction, so it may be helpful to consult with an attorney for advice on having a conviction expunged.
What Makes a Person an Accomplice?
There are four different categories of accomplices based on participation.
- Principal in the first degree: This person either physically commits the crime or commits it using 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 crime scene but does solicit or command the principal in the first degree to commit the crime.
- Accessory after the fact: Such an accomplice deliberately 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 as liable for the crimes committed as the principal in the first degree. Nevertheless, most jurisdictions consider accessory after the fact as a distinct 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 chose to join in on the crime. If the accomplice was part of the crime from the start or joined the criminals while the crime was still in progress, then the accomplice is subject to the same punishment as the perpetrators who actually committed the crime.
However, suppose the accomplice aids the criminals after the crime, such as concealing evidence or the criminals themselves. In that case, 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 happens during the original crime.
Are There Any Defenses To Accomplice Liability?
There are several defenses to accomplice liability. The defenses can include:
- Duress – Accomplice liability can only be imposed if the individual participated in the crime through their 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 act on a crime cannot be charged with anything higher than a criminal conspiracy.
- Intent – Some states require that the accomplice intended for an act to be committed; this defense is most successful if the accomplice is charged with liability through omission.
- Foreseeability – Some states demand that the crime be reasonably foreseeable before an accomplice can be charged for a perpetrator’s actions. This is most applicable to felony murder.
- Withdrawal – An accomplice who renounces the commission of the crime before the crime starts may not be responsible. An accomplice who renounces the crime while the crime is in progress can be given a lesser sentence. Some states may demand that the former accomplice actively try to prevent the crime before using the defense of withdrawal.
Do I Need an Experienced Criminal Law Attorney?
If you think 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. Use LegalMatch to start resolving your legal issues today.