The inchoate crime of aiding and abetting applies to an individual who assists in a crime, but does not commit the crime himself. This person is also known as an “accessory to the crime.” Aiding and abetting varies greatly by state, with some states varying the severity of the charge depending on the level of involvement of the accessory.
Accessory and Principal
Aiding and abetting requires the existence of both a “principal” and an “accessory.” The principal is the person who is primarily responsible for the crime and who likely ultimately committed the crime. If two or more individuals are responsible for a crime they can be charged as joint principals. The accessory is the person who assists with the crime but is not directly involved with its actual commission. Typically, the test for distinguishing between the two is whether the person directly contributed to the crime (a principal) or merely provided background help or assistance (an accessory).
Elements of Aiding and Abetting
A charge of aiding and abetting has three requirements. First, someone else must have committed a crime. Second, the defendant must have assisted that person in the commission of the crime. Third, the defendant must have had knowledge of that person’s criminal intent or criminal plans. An individual will not be found guilty for accidentally assisting in a crime. For instance, if a man knows that his friends have committed a crime and are trying to escape and he causes an accident in order to allow them to get away from the police, this could be aiding and abetting. However, if the same man is involved in an accident that allows burglars to get away from the police, but he has no knowledge of the burglary or the effect his accident would have, he cannot be charged with aiding and abetting.
An accessory to a crime can have knowledge of criminal intent before, or after, the commission of the crime. An individual who is aware of the crime before it occurs and gives assistance in preparation to commit the crime is called an “accessory before the fact.” If an individual only learns of the crime after it has taken place, but provides assistance in the aftermath of the crime, he is known as an “accessory after the fact.”
The types of actions that constitute assistance to a crime vary greatly. A person may provide advice, supplies, financial support, or engage in actions such as acting as a lookout or driving the getaway car. Where the assistance the accessory provides rises to the level of significant involvement in planning the crime, this can elevate the charge from aiding and abetting to conspiracy.
In most states, accessories face lesser punishment than principals for crimes that are committed. However, other states consider accessories just as guilty as principals because they also intended for the crime to be committed. It is important to check the laws of your state in order to determine what punishments may apply.
It is also important to note that even if a principal is not convicted of a crime (perhaps because of mistaken identity or another defense), the accessory may still be charged with aiding and abetting if a crime was committed and he assisted in the commission of that crime.
Some states allow a defense of abandonment or withdrawal for an individual charged with aiding and abetting. For instance, in California, a defendant may be found not guilty if he can establish that he notified everyone else involved in the crime that he was no longer participating in the crime and that he did everything reasonably within his power to prevent the crime from being committed, such as reporting the planned crime to the police.