A criminal charge of "aiding and abetting" or accessory can usually be brought against anyone who helps in the commission of a crime, though legal distinctions vary by state. A person charged with these accomplice crimes is usually not present when the crime itself is committed, but he or she has knowledge of the crime before or after the fact, and may assist in its commission through advice, actions, or financial support. Depending on the degree of involvement, the offender's participation in the crime may rise to the level of conspiracy.
For example, Andy draws a floor plan of a bank, knowing of Dan's intention to rob it. After Dan commits the robbery, Alice agrees to let him store the stolen money at her house. Both Andy and Alice can be charged with aiding and abetting, or acting as accessories to the robbery.
How Are Aiding, Abetting, and Accessory Defined?
As with all crimes, the specific elements depend on the state where the crime takes place. In general, aiding refers to differing degrees of support and abetting involves encouragement. Accessory usually involves actions taken to protect the perpetrator after the crime is committed.
If you were to serve on a jury in a federal court, you would be instructed that the crime of aiding and abetting requires the prosecution to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that:
Similarly, you would be instructed that the crime of accessory after the fact requires proving that:
A failure to sufficiently prove any of these elements, or those that may apply under state law, means that you cannot be convicted for these crimes.
Is There A Way Out?
Even if you've aided and abetted someone before they commit a crime, your state may allow for a withdrawal defense. In essence, this means that you have ceased your support and encouragement for the crime before it has become unstoppable. However, this can be difficult to prove unless there is some clear evidence of repudiation (such as a communication to the perpetrator or a warning to the potential victim). Some jurisdictions may require an attempt to stop the crime from taking place by, for example, notifying law enforcement.
Even if your actions don't clearly constitute withdrawal, efforts to remove yourself from a crime before it takes place can help to mitigate the punishments you might face. Depending on the situation, these efforts could even lead the government to use prosecutorial discretion and not charge you with a crime. This could happen where, for example, you're facing threats to your safety by coming forward to report a pending crime.
Don't Go It Alone: Get Professional Help With Your Criminal Case
The fact that you weren't there when the crime was committed won't protect you from prosecution for aiding and abetting. These accomplice crimes can be tricky and usually boil down to what you knew and when you knew it. If you have some knowledge of a crime before or after the fact, you should reach out to a criminal defense attorney who can advise you and help protect your interests.