Understanding Vicarious Liability in Criminal Law

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 What Is Accomplice And Criminal Liability?

Criminal liability is essential in proving that a defendant is guilty of a crime. In order to find a person criminally liable, a court generally must prove two things: First, that the person committed the criminal act in question, which is referred to as conduct. Second, that they did so with the required criminal mindset, which is referred to as intent.

Accomplice liability allows the court to find a person criminally liable for acts that were committed by a different person. If a person aids, assists, and/or encourages another person in the commission of a crime, they are said to be an “accomplice” to the crime, while the person who actually commits the act is called the “principal.”

The crime for which an accomplice provides assistance is referred to as the “target crime.” As such, when determining what is considered to be accomplice liability and criminal liability, the court must examine the conduct and intent of both the principal and the accomplice.

When determining accomplice liability, a court will review several factors, including information associated with the accomplice’s intent. Meaning, the accomplice must have intended that the “target crime” be, in fact, committed up to completion. They will also consider the accomplice’s scope of liability. What this means is that the accomplice will be guilty of the target crime, as well as any other foreseeable crimes that may be committed during the commission of the target crime.

The accomplice must provide active aid, counsel, encouragement, and/or assistance toward the commission of the crime. As such, if a person is present at the scene of a crime but takes no active steps toward assisting the perpetrator, they will likely not be found to be an accomplice.

The principal must be aware that the other person is helping them in the commission of a crime. As such, if the principal does not know of the other person’s assistance, accomplice liability will not be found.

Some examples of accomplice liability and criminal liability include:

  • Serving as a “get-away” driver;
  • Being a “lookout” for cops and witnesses while the crime is being committed;
  • Loaning money, weapons, and/or other objects for use in the commission of the crime; and/or
  • Encouraging the principal to complete the crime.

Accomplice and criminal liability can be found for aid that is given before the crime is completed, as well as after.

What Is Vicarious Liability In Criminal Law?

In criminal law, vicarious liability occurs when one person is held liable for the criminal actions of someone else, and assigns liability to a person who did not directly cause the harm in question. Criminal law tends to avoid vicarious liability due to the idea that a person is liable for their own actions, and not the actions of others.

However, there are exceptions, as vicarious liability is used in limited circumstances in some criminal cases. More commonly, vicarious liability is used in civil cases; specifically, employment law.

There are three theories of vicarious liability in criminal law:

  1. Criminal Conspiracy: A member of a conspiracy can be held liable for the crimes committed by another member, if the crime was part of the original objective, and it was foreseeable for the crime to occur. An example of this would be how if a group of bank robbers were committed and intended to rob a bank, but one member thought that that was all they were going to do. During the process of robbing the bank, they also stole a car in order to get away. While the one member may not have approved of or wished to steal a car, the fact that a car was stolen is part of robbing the bank and foreseeable. The following elements are required to establish conspiracy:
    • Two or more people have agreed to commit a crime;
    • All parties involved must have had intent to enter the agreement;
    • All parties must have intended to follow-through on the agreed-upon crime; and
    • There must be an overt act in furtherance of the agreement. An example of this would be buying a weapon, or holding a meeting in order to plan the crime.
  2. Accomplice Liability: As was previously mentioned, an accomplice helps another person commit a crime by aiding, abetting, counseling, and/or by encouragement to follow through.
    • The following elements may be present for accomplice liability:
    • The accomplice aids and abets, with the intent that the principal would commit the crime;
    • The accomplice aids and abets prior to the crime, or as it is happening;
    • The person is an accessory after the fact if they provided help after the commission of the crime, and is not vicariously liable; and
    • The crime of being an accessory after the fact is generally directly liable, not vicariously, for another crime such as the obstruction of justice.
  3. Vicarious Liability for Felony Murder: If a victim is killed during the commission of a felony, the person who killed the victim is directly liable for murder. A co-felon will be held vicariously liable for murder, even though they did not commit the murder, if the victim’s death was reasonably foreseeable.

The following issues are considered for a co-felon’s vicarious liability in felony murder:

  • Common felonies where vicarious liability is triggered include robbery, burglary, rape, arson, kidnapping, and other inherently dangerous felonies;
  • The commission of the felony, including an attempt to commit the felony in which death results, will trigger liability for murder; and
  • If death occurs after the felony was completed, vicarious liability for murder may not exist.

What Should I Know About Criminal Law In General?

Civil law addresses behavior that causes some sort of injury to another person, or other private party, through the use of lawsuits. Legal repercussions for any parties found liable for these acts are generally monetary, but may also include court-ordered remedies such as injunctions or restraining orders.

Criminal law addresses behavior that is considered to be an offense against society, the state, or the public, even if the victim is an individual. Someone convicted of a crime may be forced to pay fines, as well as lose their freedom by being sentenced to jail or prison time.

No matter whether someone is being charged with a serious crime or a minor crime, the accused person still has the right to a trial, as well as certain other legal protections. Each state has its own set of criminal laws; however, there are certain Constitutional rights that apply to every defendant, no matter what that crime is or where it happened.

These rights include:

  • Right To A Speedy Trial: The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial in order to prevent the accused from being kept in jail for extended periods of time without adjudication;
  • Right To A Jury: Additionally, the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a trial by jury, although many jurisdictions allow the defendant to waive a jury in favor of a bench trial in which guilt is determined by a judge;
  • Miranda Rights: The result of a famous Supreme Court case, Miranda rights give the criminal defendant access to an attorney regardless of whether they can afford one to aid in their defense; and
  • Protection Against Self-Incrimination: Known as “pleading the fifth,” this Constitutional protection provides that a defendant cannot be forced to testify against their own interest.

Do I Need A Lawyer For Help With Understanding Vicarious Liability In Criminal Law?

If you believe that you may be vicariously liable for a crime that you did not personally commit, or if you are facing criminal charges, you should speak to a criminal lawyer immediately.

An experienced attorney can help you understand your legal rights and options under your state’s specific criminal laws, and will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.

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