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What Is Complicity or Accomplice Liability?

In criminal law, complicity is the act of helping, encouraging, or soliciting another individual to commit a crime. Common law refers to this as aiding and abetting. One who is complicit in committing criminal conduct is an accomplice. Although an accomplice does not actually commit the crime, their actions help someone in the commission of the crime.

Accomplice liability means an accomplice faces the same criminal liability and culpability as the individual who committed the crime. The penalties for aiding and abetting depend on the underlying crime. For example, if the underlying charge is a misdemeanor, the accomplice, along with the primary perpetrator, will be charged with a misdemeanor. An accomplice cannot be charged with a more serious crime than the primary perpetrator.

Elements of Accomplice Liability

To charge someone as an accomplice, the prosecutor must prove the individual had the requisite actus reus and mens rea. This means that the prosecution must prove that the accomplice had the appropriate criminal intent and voluntarily encouraged or assisted during the commission of the offense.

The bar for proving actus reus in an accomplice charge is very low. In some cases, an individual is an accomplice if they had a legal duty to act but did not attempt to prevent the commission of an offense.

In general, a prosecutor must prove the following three elements to convict someone of being an accomplice or an aider and abettor:

  1. Another individual committed the crime
  2. The defendant "aided, counseled, commanded, or encouraged" the other person in the commission of the crime
  3. The defendant acted with the requisite mental state in their jurisdiction

Examples of Complicity With a Criminal Offense

The following examples illustrate how an individual may be an accomplice to a criminal act:

  • Serving as the getaway driver in a bank robbery
  • Turning off the alarm system of a jewelry store, knowing that it will be robbed later that evening
  • Loaning a handgun to someone who they know is planning to commit a crime
  • Directing a vehicle to a dead-end street where they know an armed carjacker is waiting

An individual can stop their complicity during the commission of a crime. They can do this by either:

  1. Giving a timely warning to law enforcement that a crime is about to be committed; or
  2. Making a good-faith effort to prevent the commission of the crime

The Difference Between Complicity and Conspiracy

Each state's criminal charges will vary. But typically, if an individual takes an active role in the planning of a crime, they will be charged with conspiracy. A conspirator agrees with others to commit a future crime, while an accomplice assists, in some way, in the actual commission of a crime. Furthermore, conspirators can be guilty even if the underlying crime is not committed.

Example: If a group of individuals gets together to plan and commit a robbery and takes an overt action to accomplish their plan (e.g., purchasing guns), they could each be charged with the crime of conspiracy to commit robbery. This is so even if the robbery never happens. However, if the individuals go through with the planned robbery, they will be charged with both conspiracy and robbery (as principals or accomplices, depending on their role in the robbery).

In the Supreme Court case Pinkerton vs. United States, the Court held that a co-conspirator is liable for any crime committed by the other co-conspirators if (1) the crime falls within the scope of the conspiracy; and (2) the crime was a foreseeable consequence of the conspiracy.

Get Legal Help From an Experienced Criminal Lawyer

Being accused of accomplice liability is a serious matter. Whether the government is charging you with being the criminal mastermind or driving the getaway car, you should seek legal advice before making any decisions about your case. Speak with a skilled criminal defense attorney in your area to determine your rights and make a legal plan.

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