Accomplices & Accessories to Crime: Explanation & Examples

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
Crimes are often committed by more than one person. In this lesson, we will learn the difference between an accomplice and an accessory, and see examples of each.

One is the Loneliest Number

A buddy asks you for some advice on how to open a safe with a torch. Being a welder, you are glad to show him. A week later, the cops are at your door arresting you for being an accomplice in a bank heist. Does that seem fair? Is it against the law to help someone?

What Is a Crime?

Simply put, a crime is something that is against the law. This also means there must be a law describing what is illegal. It could be a murder or littering, both are crimes and both carry punishments. Let's look at a statute for bank robbery: A bank robbery is committed when a person enters a bank and uses force or intimidation to take property or money in the bank from a person working in the bank.

So, Chuck goes into a bank wearing a mask, and he pulls a gun on the teller and demands her to put some money in the bag. The teller complies, and he takes the money and leaves. Applying the statute, he committed the crime of bank robbery.

Getting Help

So, what if the criminal needs some help, such as a lookout or a getaway driver? If these helpers get caught, do they get the same charge as the actual robber? The answer lies in whether the person is an accomplice or an accessory. An accomplice is one who aids or assists another person who commits a crime. Typically, this person is at the scene of the crime and is committing the crime along with the principal, who is the primary actor in the crime. This differs from an acccomplice who provides aid in the crime, but does not assist the principal in carrying out the crime and is typically not present when the crime occurs.

For example, if Chuck hires Lucy to be a lookout and a getaway driver, and then they commit the crime, Chuck is the principal, and Lucy is an accomplice. Why? Because she drove to the scene, stayed there to look out for the police, and then drove Chuck away. However, let's say Patti helped too. Days earlier, she bought Chuck a ski mask and a duffel bag, which he used in the robbery. Is she an accomplice or an accessory?

Accessory v. Accomplice

So, what's the difference between accessory and accomplice? Is it the degree of help? Whether one is present at the crime? What if Patti helped Chuck get the bag and the mask, and a few days later she just happened to be a customer in the bank when Chuck and Lucy robbed the bank? Is she now an accomplice because she was present at the crime? The answer is in the intent, (level of desire of a person to commit a crime) of the helper.

If the helper's intent that the ''target crime'' be committed right up to completion, then they are an accomplice. This is the common purpose doctrine, and it is used to determine accomplice liability, which means that the accomplice has the same level of culpability or liability in the crime as the principal. Why is this important? Because an accomplice is on the hook for the crime even if the principal is prosecuted or found not guilty.

Also, the accomplice is liable for all criminal actions the principal commits during the commission of the target crime. If the principal shoots and kills a guard, then the accomplice is liable for murder as well.

So, let's say Lucy is in the car waiting, and Chuck comes running firing his gun behind him. A guard is shot, and Lucy drives them both away from the scene. Lucy is liable for shooting the guard even though she didn't pull the trigger, and even if Chuck got shot and dies. Thus, as an accomplice, Lucy could get the death penalty for killing the guard without firing a shot or even wanting to ever kill someone.

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