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What is Complicity or Accomplice Liability?

Complicity is the act of helping or encouraging another individual to commit a crime. It is also commonly referred to as aiding and abetting. One who is complicit is said to be an accomplice. But, even though an accomplice does not actually commit the crime, his or her actions helped someone in the commission of the crime.

The concept of accomplice liability means an accomplice faces the same degree of guilt and punishment as the individual who committed the crime. Indeed, accomplices can face the same penalties, including prison time. The key consideration is whether the individual intentionally and voluntarily encouraged or assisted in the commission of the crime, or (in some cases) failed to prevent it.

See FindLaw's Criminal Charges section for additional articles and resources.

Elements of Accomplice Liability

With some variations, depending on the state, a prosecutor must be able to prove the following four elements in order to convict someone for being an accomplice or aiding and abetting:

  • A crime was committed by another individual; 
  • The defendant "aided, counseled, commanded, or encouraged" the other person in the commission of the crime.
  • The defendant acted with the requisite mental state in their jurisdiction, for example, knowingly or purposefully, to assist in the crime (see Mens Rea - A Defendant's Mental State).

Examples of Complicity

The following examples illustrate the many ways 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 in which you work, knowing that it will be robbed later that evening.
  • Loaning a handgun to someone who you know is planning to commit a crime.  
  • Directing a vehicle to a dead-end street where you know an armed carjacker is waiting.

The Difference Between Complicity and Conspiracy

When an individual takes on an active role in the planning of a crime, the crime may instead be one of 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, unlike accomplices to a crime, conspirators can be guilty even if their plan is not completed.

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

Consider speaking with a criminal defense attorney in your area if you have additional questions about complicity or have been charged as an accomplice to an offense.

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