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At law, an accomplice is a person who actively participates in the commission of a crime, even though they take no part in the actual criminal offense. For example, in a bank robbery, the person who points the gun at the teller and asks for the money is guilty of armed robbery. However, anyone else directly involved in the commission of the crime, such as the lookout or the getaway car driver, is an accomplice, even though in the absence of an underlying offense keeping a lookout or driving a car would not be an offense.

An accomplice differs from an accessory in that an accomplice is present at the actual crime, and could be prosecuted even if the main criminal (the principal) is not charged or convicted. An accessory is generally not present at the actual crime, and may be subject to lesser penalties than an accomplice or principal.

In older sources, an accomplice was often referred to as an abettor. This term is not in active use, having been replaced by accomplice.

At law, an accomplice has the same degree of guilt as the person he or she is assisting, is subject to prosecution for the same crime, and faces the same criminal penalties. As such, the three accomplices to the bank robbery above can also be found guilty of armed robbery even though only one stole the money.

The fairness of the doctrine that the accomplice is as guilty as the primary offender has been discussed many times, particularly in cases of capital crimes. On several occasions, accomplices have been prosecuted for felony murder even though the actual person who committed the murder died at the crime scene or otherwise did not face capital punishment.

One of the most notorious cases of this type was the 1952 case in Englandmarker involving Derek Bentley, a mentally-challenged man who was in police custody when his sixteen-year-old companion, Christopher Craig, shot and killed a police officer during a botched break-in (News Report [107286]). Craig was sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure, since as a juvenile offender he could not be sentenced to death (he was released after serving ten years), but Bentley was hanged. The incident was dramatized in the film Let Him Have It, which is what Bentley allegedly said to Craig during the incident, it being unclear whether he meant for Craig to shoot the officer, or to surrender the gun. The hanging of Bentley led to public outrage and the eventual abolition of capital punishment in the United Kingdommarker.

Aiding and abetting under U.S. law

Courts often refer to aiding and abetting as an alternate theory of liability rather than a separate crime. Under 18 U.S.C. § 2, aiding and abetting liability is available in all federal criminal prosecutions; however, the availability and extent of civil aiding and abetting liability varies from statute to statute.

Where available, aiding and abetting liability generally requires three elements: 1) an underlying violation by a principal; 2) knowledge of that violation and/or the intent to facilitate the violation; and 3) assistance to the principal in the violation.

As indicated by the Supreme Court of the United Statesmarker, “In order to aid and abet another to commit a crime it is necessary that a defendant 'in some sort associate himself with the venture, that he participate in it as in something that he wishes to bring about, that he seek by his action to make it succeed.” Nye & Nissen v. United States, 336 U.S. 613, 618 (1949) quoting Judge Learned Hand in U.S. v. Peoni 100 F.2d 401, 402 (2d. Cir. 1938).

In 1982, the United States Supreme Courtmarker held that accomplices may not be executed for the capital crimes of other criminals, if there is no evidence that the accomplice knew or even suspected that the primary wrongdoer might commit murder. In Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782 (1982), the accomplice was sitting in a car outside a house where a robbery was committed, and had no inkling that his partner in crime was going to kill the robbery victim.

Some states, including the state of California, have a system that distinguishes between an accessory, an accomplice, and a principal (or co-principal) in a different way. In this system, the difference between an accessory and an accomplice is not as listed above. An accessory would ONLY be someone who aids and abets the principal (the person who committed the crime OR helped in the planning of the crime) to escape justice after the crime has been committed (there is no more accessory "before" and "after" the fact... what was once "accessory before the fact" is now just "co-principal", and what was once "accessory after the fact" is now just "accessory". An accomplice is NOT a formal legal term in many states... it is "legal slang", and denotes ONLY "an accessory or co-principal that agrees to testify against another principal in a court of law".

Accomplice Liability (unlike conspiracy, no agreement necessary) Actual assistance required and principle must know of Accomplice's actions.
  • Defendant must intend to commit or to assist another in committing (requires specific intent)
  • In some situations (the mental state might be that the accessory might think that the principal will commit the crime)
  • in some states the required mental state, or culpability, is the knowledge the principal’s mental state

Model Penal Code: a person who attempts to aid a person is guilty of being an accessory, regardless of whether the act or the attempted act occurred (§5.01.3)

Some courts take the position that any active assistance establishes a mens rea.

Common law categories
  • Principles in first degree
  • Principles in second degree one who intentionally helps/encourages P-1 commit the crime and is present or constructively present at the scene (i.e. a lookout).
  • Accessories before the fact one who procure counsels or commands the commission of a felony but who, unlike a principal in the second degree, is not present, actually or constructively, at the commission of the criminal act.
  • Accessories after the fact is defined as
  • Knowledge (not just suspicion) that a felony had been committed, and completed, by the assisted person;

Accomplices are liable for the crime itself and all other foreseeable crimes
  • Even if the principal has an immunity the accomplice can still be tried
  • accomplice is imputed with the mens rea of the actor (intent to commit or encourage the crime) (former lover looking for girl)
  • Both parties must have the same intent (relative helped robber rob store to help police catch him)
  • One is not an accomplice if they do not actively aiding or abetting or counseling the crime
  • Don't give people accomplice liability just because they are present, but they seem to be consenting

Mens Rea as to Result (in recklessness cases)
  • An accessory before the fact can be liable for the final act (ship boiler blew up) even for negligence
  • Participation can be an accessory An accomplice must have the same culpable mental state and intentionally aid in the commission (accident killing others while drag racing)
  • Actus Reus Wilcox v. Jeffery —The nature of the illegal act is immaterial (the jazz musician)
  • Sometimes just encouraging can be enough

Defenses to Accomplices liability
  • Withdrawal
  • Where an accessory has only counseled, commanded, or encouraged the crime, he may withdraw by communicating his changed intention to the other parties
  • If he has already given tangible aid, he must withdraw the aid or try to prevent its use (e.g., by warning the police).
'Note that it is not necessary that the crime actually be prevented by his actions; if he withdraws properly, he will not be liable even if the crime takes place.

  • Note, however, that the withdrawal must reflect a renunciation of the criminal purpose, not a mere determination that the odds of success are slim, or that one is afraid of getting caught. Also, such withdrawal must take place before the chain of events has become "unstoppable."

Defenses ways of knocking out the mens reas
  • Legal infancy
  • Under seven no criminal liability
  • Under fourteen rebuttable presumption of criminal liability
  • Insanity four tests == Most states the prosecutor has the burden of persuasion
  • M'Naughton Rule (traditional):
  • Two prongs
  • Defendant is not guilty by reason of legal insanity if he lacked the ability to know (and the time of his conduct) the wrongfulness of his action
  • to understand the nature and quality of his action requires a disease of the mind
  • Accused’s sanity may be tested by his knowledge that his acts were legally wrong.

Application to "white collar crimes"

Since 2001, the Securities and Exchange Commission has filed a number of complaints related to the aiding and abetting of securities fraud. For example, CIBC and Merrill Lynch were separately charged with aiding and abetting Enron’s evasion of record keeping requirements and required financial controls. Settlements, including disgorgement, penalties, and interest reached $80 million in both cases.


  • Guam v. Dela Rosa, 644 F.2d 1257, 1260-61 (9th Cir. 1981) (per curiam) defining an accomplice as “one who could have been indicted for the same offense either as an accessory or principal”

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