In criminal law, there are criminal actors—people who function as principals, accomplices, accessories, and co-conspirators. Not only does the law punish those who have directly committed a crime, but it also punishes people who have indirectly participated in a crime.

For individuals who have been charged as accomplices (also known as “aiders and abettors”), accessories, and co-conspirators, it is imperative 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 very serious, and can be followed with severe punishment. "Aiding and abetting" is a legal doctrine that calls anyone who helps someone else commit a crime, an accessory. Accessories usually help the principal before or after the crime, hence the phrases “accessory before the fact” and “accessory after the fact.”

People who help out before the fact are usually known to be aiding and abetting and are charged and punished the same or similarly as the principal. Those who are accessories after the fact may face charges and sentences that are less serious than their principal and accomplice counterparts.


An accomplice is usually present at the actual crime, whereas an accessory is generally not at the actual crime but is aiding or abetting in some way, 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 his co-conspirator (a former employee who has floor plans of the bank) agree to rob the bank on Tuesday. The principal goes into the bank with a gun and holds up a teller.

Meanwhile, his accomplice is outside driving the getaway car, and after they have escaped, the accessory (in this case, accessory after the fact) helps the robbers evade police by spray-painting the getaway car. Even though the principal is the one who actually committed the bank robbery, the other individuals may be severely punished for their roles in the crime.


For those who are charged with conspiracy, it is possible to be punished even if the crime itself was not committed. It is the planning of the crime and the agreement to commit the crime that is illegal. In some states, evidence of an “overt act” is required to   show that the plan was set in motion.

For instance, a police detective who goes undercover as a hitman will be able to arrest the spouse of the individual he was hired to kill. Usually, the police will capture the planning of the murder on tape and will then make an 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 actually took place, the defendant may be charged with both conspiracy to commit the murder, and the murder itself.

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 advise you of your rights, prepare your defense, and represent you in court.