In criminal law, there are criminal actors—individuals who function as principals, accomplices, accessories, and co-conspirators. The law punishes those who have directly committed a crime, but it also punishes people who have indirectly participated in a crime.

For people who have been charged as accomplices (also known as “aiders and abettors”), accessories, and co-conspirators, it is crucial to seek the counsel of an attorney who has experience in derivative crime cases.

Accessory, Aiding and Abetting

The charges of being an accomplice or an accessory to a crime are severe and can be followed with strict punishment. “Aiding and abetting” is a legal doctrine that calls anyone who helps someone else perpetrate a crime an accessory. Accessories usually assist the principal before or after the crime, hence the terms “accessory before the fact” and “accessory after the fact.”

Individuals who help out before the fact are usually known to be aiding and abetting and are charged and punished similarly to the principal. Those who are accessories after the fact may face charges and less severe sentences than their principal and accomplice counterparts.

What Are Some Defenses to Aiding and Abetting?

Depending on the facts of the case, there may be different defenses for a person who is faced with aiding and abetting allegations. These may include:

  • Withdrawal: A person can evade liability by withdrawing their intent to help or aid in the crime. They must convey this clearly to the other individuals involved in the crime, and they must also do what they reasonably can to stop the crime from happening.
  • Did not assist: If the individual did not help, provoke, or aid another individual, the court might resolve that they were “merely present” at the crime scene (i.e., if the individual was simply a bystander).
  • Duress: It may be a defense if the individual was pushed to help in the crime under a threat of harm.
  • Accessory after the fact: Some laws may lessen liability if the individual aided in the offense after it took place. The court might deem the individual an accessory rather than aiding and abetting. While they might not wholly avoid liability, they may have their sentence reduced by several years, such as three years instead of 9.

As mentioned, the availability of each defense will depend on what happened concerning the crime committed. Furthermore, state laws may have slightly different variations in criminal defenses.

Accomplice

An accomplice is usually present at the actual crime. In contrast, an accessory is generally not at the actual crime. Still, it is aiding or abetting somehow, and a co-conspirator has agreed to commit the crime, usually followed by planning the crime itself.

An example of these criminal actors is as follows:

In a bank robbery, the principal and their co-conspirator (a former worker who has floor plans) agree to rob the bank on Tuesday. The principal goes into the bank with a firearm and holds up a teller.

Meanwhile, their accomplice is outside, driving the getaway car. After they have fled, the accessory (in this case, accessory after the fact) helps the robbers elude police by spray-painting the getaway car. Even though the principal is the one who perpetrated the bank robbery, the other people may be harshly punished for their roles in the crime.

Conspiracy

Conspiracy is a broad classification of crimes involving multiple actors coming together to engage in criminal activity. Specific federal anti-conspiracy statutes are seen throughout federal law. State statutes also contain anti-conspiracy laws. Criminal conspiracy is a felony, even when the crime planned and carried out is a misdemeanor.

In recent years, many white-collar criminal prosecutions have included allegations of conspiracy.

A person or business typically is guilty of conspiracy to commit a crime if that individual or business does one of the following:

  • To facilitate or promote its commission agrees with another individual or business to engage in conduct that constitutes a crime or an attempt or solicitation of a crime; or
  • Agrees to aid another person or business in planning, executing, or attempting to solicit a crime.

It is feasible for those charged with conspiracy to be penalized even if the crime was not committed. It is the crime planning and the agreement to commit the crime. In some states, proof of an “overt act” is needed to demonstrate that the plan was set in motion.

For example, a police detective who goes undercover as a hitman will be able to arrest the spouse of the person he was hired to kill. Usually, the police will capture the planning of the murder on tape and will then arrest after receiving a down payment (overt act) for the “hitman’s” murder-for-hire services.

If the hitman was not an undercover detective, and the murder took place, the defendant may be charged with conspiracy to commit the murder and the murder itself.

What Elements Are Needed to Prove Criminal Conspiracy?

The two key factors in establishing a conspiracy are an agreement and an act in furtherance of the conspiracy by one of the actors.

A key factor in prosecuting a defendant for conspiracy is confirming the agreement. The agreement that forms the foundation for conspiracy need not be written, oral, or even straightforward but is often inferred from the facts of the specific case. There is an agreement if the parties meet and reach an understanding to work for a common purpose.

Most criminal conspiracy statutes also mandate that at least one of the parties has perpetrated an overt act to further the conspiracy.

What Are the Two Types of Criminal Conspiracy?

A procedural matter of great significance to parties accused of conspiracy is whether government prosecutors try to frame the scheme as a “hub-and-spoke conspiracy” or a “chain conspiracy.”

Many parties conspire with one person in a hub-and-spoke conspiracy, but not with other defendants. It is beneficial for a defendant to have their actions characterized as part of a hub-and-spoke conspiracy because the conspiracies are distinct and separate.

A chain conspiracy involves several parties as links in one long criminal chain. Defendants in chain conspiracies are liable for all participants’ actions, even if they never met some of the other participants in the chain.

Are There Any Potential Defenses to a Criminal Conspiracy Charge?

Due to the definition of the crime and the elements which must be established, criminal conspiracy contains several defenses, some of which are unique to the crime:

  • Lack of evidence: This might be a no-brainer, but prosecutors must supply proof beyond sheer association. Just because a suspect is linked to or knows another suspect is not enough to provide that there was a scheme to perpetrate a crime.
  • All or Nothing: Since conspiracy depends on an agreement between the group of suspects, if the prosecution fails to establish that any suspect in the group did an overt act towards conducting the crime, the entire group can get off.
  • Specificity over Generality: Many states have doctrines remarking that if a suspect can be charged with a specific crime and a general crime using the same evidence, only the specific crime can be charged. This is useful in conspiracy cases involving misdemeanors because conspiracy statutes are drawn extensively. Invoking the specificity doctrine could permit a defendant to escape the felony charge (conspiracy) and serve a misdemeanor sentence.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you have been charged with a derivative crime, you should speak to a lawyer immediately. A local criminal lawyer will be able to inform you of your rights, prepare your defense, and represent you in court. Use LegalMatch to find the right lawyer for your needs today.