Accomplice Liability – The Long Arm of the Law

While it may be considered a good deed to help someone, helping someone commit a crime can get you in trouble. In fact, under the legal principle of “accomplice liability,” you can be charged, convicted and sentenced for the same crime as the actual perpetrator – even if you did not benefit from, and were not present at, the commission of the crime.

Accomplice liability, or aiding and abetting, allows prosecutors to cast a very broad net and charge every person who encourages, facilitates or aides in the commission of a crime. For example, in a bank robbery, the person who actually points a gun at the teller and grabs the money is guilty of armed robbery. But prosecutors may also charge any other person involved, such as the person driving the get-a-way car, the person who serves as a look-out, and the person who provided information regarding the lay-out of the bank with armed robbery. In this case, all four offenders are considered as having the same degree of guilt, even though only one of them actually pointed the gun and took the money.

Accomplice liability is triggered when a person knowingly aids, promotes, encourages or instigates the perpetrator of a crime. Consequently, very little action on the part of the accomplice is required. In one well-known case, a defendant was convicted of statutory rape after he rented his room to a young couple. Both the defendant and the other man were charged and convicted of statutory rape due to the tender age of the young woman. The court found the defendant liable under a theory of accomplice liability because his act – of renting his room to the couple – facilitated the crime. As a result, the defendant was sentenced to nine months in jail.

Accomplices can be punished both for being an accomplice, and also for the resulting crime as well. Accordingly accomplices are typically charged with the actual crime, i.e. armed robbery, arson, or murder.

Critics of the doctrine of accomplice liability argue that it is unfair to hold someone responsible for a crime in which their involvement could be seen as relatively minor, or in cases where the foreseeability of the crime to the accomplice is remote. In one case, the defendant hired a hit man to kill someone. As they were approaching the intended victim, they saw another man. The defendant told the hit man that the man was not the intended victim. The hit man, however, shot and killed the man anyway. The defendant was convicted of first degree murder under a theory of accomplice liability, even though he never intended for the hit man to kill anyone but the intended victim. The court found that the defendant facilitated the murder by hiring the hit man, regardless of who the intended target was.

As these cases demonstrate, the theory of accomplice liability can be a very powerful weapon for prosecutors. Defendants can – and will – be charged as accomplices if they encourage, facilitate or aid the commission of a crime, even if they do not actually commit the crime. Moreover, if convicted, an accomplice could be sentenced to the same penalties as the actual perpetrator of the crime.