Sometimes people other than the main perpetrator of a crime (known as the principal) may be held accountable for the crime. The terms vary across the states, but often these people are known as accomplices or accessories. Accomplices may be known as aiders and abettors. They may be charged if they intentionally do something to help someone else commit a crime or if they encourage another person to commit a crime.
An accomplice does not need to actually participate in the crime. They might help the principal flee the scene, they might help distract security or law enforcement, or they might provide the principal with the tools to commit the crime. Some examples of accomplices include getaway drivers, lookouts, and people who use their position as employees to help someone else commit a crime against their employer. It is important to be aware that an accomplice can face the same penalties as the principal. Even if the principal is never caught and convicted, an accomplice can be convicted of the crime.
Accessories to Crimes
An accessory is somewhat more removed from the principal and the crime than an accomplice. They also intentionally assist the principal in committing the crime, but they are often not at the crime scene. A typical example of an accessory is someone who helps someone else cover up a crime after it has been committed. Whether an accessory assists the principal before or after the crime can make a huge difference in the penalties that they face. An accessory who assists the principal before the crime (known as an accessory before the fact) may be treated in the same way as the principal or an accomplice. By contrast, an accessory who provides assistance after the crime (known as an accessory after the fact) may be treated more leniently.
Conspiracy: Beyond Aiding and Abetting
Conspiracy is a very complex crime that can be charged separately from the underlying crime. It involves agreeing with at least one other person to commit a crime. For example, if two or more people agree to commit a robbery together, each of them may be charged with both robbery and conspiracy. Each of the conspirators is considered equally responsible for the crime, and each of them will be treated as a principal.
Moreover, defendants can be charged with conspiracy even if they never commit the underlying crime. Since people cannot be punished for their thoughts or state of mind, the prosecution will need to show that at least one of the conspirators committed at least one overt act that moved them toward committing the crime. The overt act does not need to be criminal on its own. It only needs to show that one of the conspirators was preparing for the crime. This could be as simple as renting a car or buying maps to use in fleeing the scene of a robbery, which are not criminal actions in ordinary situations. Or a meeting between the conspirators to discuss their plans might be enough to qualify as an overt act, even if it occurred in a public location.