What Is An Accessory To A Crime An accessory to a crime refers to an individual who aids in the commission of an offense, even if they were not physically present during its occurrence. Differentiating between accessories before the fact and accessories after the fact is common in many states. In some states, aiding and abetting a crime is synonymous with being an accessory before the fact.
What Does It Mean to Be an Accessory to a Crime?
An accessory to a crime is someone who assists another person in committing the offense. There are two types of accessories:
- Accessories Before the Fact: These individuals provide assistance before the crime is committed and are often considered accomplices in many states.
- Accessories After the Fact: These individuals offer assistance after the crime has taken place, and their actions are often treated similarly to obstruction of justice, leading to different penalties upon conviction.
Accessory Before the Fact
Accessories before the fact provide assistance before the commission of the crime. In many states, the criminal justice system treats them as accomplices, as they are involved in the planning and preparation of the underlying crime.
Accessory After the Fact
Accessories after the fact only provide help once the crime has occurred. Criminal law often treats their actions similarly to obstruction of justice, resulting in different potential penalties for a conviction.
What Is an Accessory After the Fact?
An accessory after the fact is an individual who aids someone else after the commission of a crime. In California, for instance, prosecutors must prove the following elements:
- Another person committed a felony offense.
- The defendant knew that the perpetrator had committed a felony, had been charged with one, or had been convicted of one.
- After the felony, the defendant harbored, concealed, or aided the perpetrator.
- The defendant intended for the perpetrator to avoid arrest, trial, conviction, or punishment.
Notably, some state laws do not require that the underlying offense be a felony.
Examples of Being an Accessory After the Fact
Examples of being an accessory after the fact include:
- Providing an alibi for a friend charged with DUI.
- Driving a getaway car after a robbery.
- Assisting a criminal suspect or felon in evading arrest.
What Does It Mean to Aid and Abet a Crime?
Aiding and abetting a crime, often associated with being an accessory before the fact, involves assisting the perpetrator before the crime’s commission. Examples of aiding and abetting include:
- Acting as a lookout during a robbery.
- Providing a firearm for use in a crime.
- Encouraging someone else to commit the offense.
In California, prosecutors must prove:
- The principal offender committed the crime.
- The defendant knew the perpetrator’s intent to commit the crime.
- Before or during the crime, the defendant intended to aid and abet the perpetrator.
- The defendant’s words or conduct indeed aided and abetted the perpetrator’s offense.
Additionally, prosecutors must demonstrate that an accessory before the fact did not withdraw their assistance. Withdrawal involves notifying others involved in the crime and making reasonable efforts to prevent the offense, even if those efforts prove unsuccessful.
Penalties for Accessory Charges
Penalties for accessory charges vary by state or jurisdiction. Most states treat aiding and abetting as a more serious offense than being an accessory after the fact. California, for example, imposes the same penalties for aiding and abetting as for the underlying criminal charges. However, accessories to murder are an exception.
In contrast, being an accessory after the fact is considered a “wobbler” offense in California, allowing it to be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. Prosecutors have discretion in pursuing these charges, with potential penalties including jail time, prison time, and fines.
Under federal law, accessories after the fact may face sentences of up to half the minimum sentence imposed on the principal offender. In cases where the principal is sentenced to life imprisonment or the death penalty, the maximum sentence for an accessory after the fact is 15 years.
Legal Defenses for Accessories to a Crime
Individuals accused of being accessories to a crime can raise various legal defenses, including:
- Duress: Arguing that they were forced to assist by the perpetrator.
- Lack of Knowledge: Claiming they had no knowledge of the crime.
- Bystander Status: Asserting they were bystanders who did not actively aid the offense.
- Withdrawal: Demonstrating that they withdrew their assistance.
Notably, lack of specific intent for the underlying crime is typically not a defense. Knowledge of the principal’s intent to commit the crime is generally sufficient for aiding and abetting or accessory charges.
How Is This Different from Conspiracy?
Conspiracy shares similarities with aiding and abetting but involves distinct elements. In California, for instance, conspiracy requires an agreement between the defendant and another party to commit a crime, along with an overt act in furtherance of the agreement. Unlike being an accessory, being part of the planning stage is a key aspect of conspiracy, while aiding and abetting can occur without such invo