Who can be held responsible for a crime?
There are two categories of people in a crime – principals and accessories.
In general, principals are those that do the crime or those that do the crime or those that “aid and abet” in the commission. To aid and abet is to somehow facilitate, encourage or assist in the commission of the crime. Principals can all be charged with the same crime and punished the same, although obviously the direct participant is usually dealt with more severely than a person that aids and abets. For a person to aid and abet, they must have knowledge of what the other person intends to do. For example, if your friend came to you and said, “Can I borrow your car? I need it to do a drive by shooting.” or “I’m going to rob a liquor store and need a driver.” If you agree, even if you never directly participate in the crime itself, you could be responsible under the aiding and abetting theory.
Then there are the second category of participants – accessories. It’s sometimes referred to as “accessory after the fact,” but you can only be an accessory after the fact. An accessory (being an accessory is its own separate crime under Penal Code section 32) is someone who, with knowledge that a felony has been committed, does something to help a principal escape capture, prosecution, punishment or hides evidence, etc.
For both aiding and abetting as well as the crime of being an accessory, you must have knowledge of the illegal act the other person either plans or did.
For example, if you drove your friend to rob a bank, waited outside and drove them away afterward, you’re a principal under the aiding and abetting theory. If your friend came running to your house and told you they just robbed a bank and asked you to hide a bag of money (and you do it), you’re an accessory.
What’s the difference?
The biggest difference is in how principals can be charged and punished. A principal, whether they directly commit the crime or they aid and abet, can be punished in exactly the same way. In the bank robbery example, both the person who went in and did the robbery as well as the get-away driver could be charged with robbery and if convicted, could be punished exactly the same. An accessory is its own separate crime and is a “wobbler” in California and can be either a felony that carries up to three years in state prison or a misdemeanor that carries up to a year in county jail.
Under either theory – being charged as a principal under the aiding and abetting theory or being charged as an accessory, the key is knowledge. The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that as an aider and abettor, you knew what was going to happen. For an accessory, they must prove you knew that a felony was committed and that you actively did something with the intent that a principal to the crime escape. That proof of knowledge is often weak in many cases, giving you defenses to the charges.
For more about your particular case, contact me so we can meet and discuss it further.