Define: Accomplice

Quick Summary of Accomplice

An accomplice is a person who knowingly and voluntarily participates in the commission of a crime with the intent to assist or encourage the principal offender. In legal terms, an accomplice is considered equally responsible for the crime committed, even if they did not directly commit the act. The level of involvement and intent of the accomplice in the commission of the crime will determine the charges and potential penalties they may face. Accomplice liability is based on the principle that those who aid or abet in the commission of a crime should be held accountable for their actions.

Someone who helps another person (known as the principal) commit a crime. Unlike an accessory, an accomplice is usually present when the crime is committed. An accomplice is guilty of the same offence and usually receives the same sentence as the principal. For instance, the driver of the getaway car for a burglary is an accomplice and will be guilty of the burglary even though he may not have entered the building.

What is the dictionary definition of Accomplice?
Dictionary Definition of Accomplice

Accomplice (noun): 1. A person who actively participates in or assists another person in committing a crime or wrongdoing, typically by providing support, knowledge, or resources. Example: The bank robber’s accomplice helped plan the heist and provided a getaway vehicle. 2. A person who collaborates or aids someone in carrying out a deceitful or dishonest act, often for personal gain or to achieve a shared objective. Example: The politician’s accomplice leaked confidential information to gain an advantage over their opponents. 3. A person who is involved or implicated in a wrongful act, either willingly or unwillingly, by association or proximity to the main perpetrator. Example: The innocent bystander was mistakenly identified as an accomplice due to their presence at the crime scene. Note: The term “accomplice” is commonly used in legal contexts to describe individuals who are involved in criminal activities, but it can also be used more broadly to refer to anyone who assists or supports another person in carrying out an unethical or immoral act.

a person who joins with another in carrying out some plan (especially an unethical or illegal plan)

  1. rare A co-operator.
  2. legal An associate in the commission of a crime; a participator in an offence, whether a principal or an accessory.
Full Definition Of Accomplice

An accomplice is a person who, knowingly, voluntarily, and with common intent, unites with another person to perform a criminal action. The person does not have to actually participate in the crime to be considered an accomplice. An accomplice must give assistance, encouragement, or fail to perform a legal duty to prevent the criminal action with the intent thereby to promote or facilitate the commission of the crime.

Common actions of accomplices include supplying money, guns, or supplies for a crime. For example, if you knew someone wanted to kill their wife and you bought the gun and gave it to the other person to be used in the crime, even if you did not actually participate in the murder, you could be considered an accomplice.

An accomplice can be convicted even if the main offender is not convicted and may be subject to the same degree of punishment as the principal offender, although in 1982 the Supreme Court ruled “that the accomplice cannot receive the death penalty if upon an accomplice to a felony-murder, a crime leading to murder, he or she had no intention to, or did not, kill the victim.

A person who assists in the perpetration of an indictable offence but is not the direct cause of the Actus Reus; the term ‘accessory’ is also used. The person responsible for the direct commission of the Actus Reus is usually referred to as the ‘principal’ (or ‘principal offender’, see: Principal (criminal)); everyone else is a ‘secondary party. An accomplice is defined as someone who ‘aids, abets, counsels, or procures’ the offence. It is not entirely clear whether these words should be construed as technical terms or plain words. It appears that, when there was a legal distinction between ‘accessories before the fact’ (accomplices who assisted in preparation) and ‘principals in the second degree (accomplices at the scene of the crime), then ‘aiding and abetting’ applied to the latter accomplice, while ‘counselling and procuring’ applied to the former. As there is no longer a distinction in law between these ways of being an accomplice, the four terms are normally used together on an indictment.

The general rule in English law is that accomplices are as liable for the offence as the principal offender. However, the principal and the accomplices are not necessarily equivalent. First, accomplices may not attract as severe a sentence as principals. Second, in offences of Strict Liability, the principal need not be blameworthy (that is, lack mens rea). But an accomplice must, at the very least, have an intention to carry out the acts that assist the principal offender. The accomplice’s Mens Rea is relevant at the time of the assistance, not at the time of the offence (see below).

Liability as an accomplice applies to all offences unless specifically excluded by statute. Moreover, in some cases, a statute will elevate the status of an accomplice to that of a principal offender, typically to ensure that a severe sentence is available. A notable example is female circumcision; abusing the procedure is deemed to be equivalent to carrying it out.

This all seems quite straightforward, but, in fact, there are a number of technical problems associated with the law of accomplice, some of which are discussed below.

  • For there to be an accomplice to a crime, the crime must actually have been committed. One is not an accomplice merely by encouraging (‘counselling’) the principal to commit the crime; this is Incitement. However, although it must be established that an offence has been committed, the principal need not be convicted of it for the accomplices to be convicted (see below).
  • Although an incitement to commit an offence is itself an offence, whether or not the incitement is successful, it is not an offence to incite someone to be a secondary party. That is, it is not an offence to incite someone to aid and abet a crime, whether or not the crime is committed. If X incites Y to assist Z in committing a crime, X is not guilty of an offence, although Y and Z may be.
  • There needs to be some form of causal relationship between the actions of the accomplice and the actions of the principal. If X encourages Y to assault Z, and Y does assault Z, but without knowing of X’s encouragement, then X is probably not liable. This does not mean that X has to be directly responsible for the assault on Z to be liable as an accomplice; he merely has to influence X’s decision how to act or assist X to act in that way. However, as we shall see, it is not clear whether the causation that the accomplice must provide is to the principal’s Mens Rea or the Actus Reus of the offence (see below).
  • One is not guilty as an accessory of being present while a crime is being committed and doing nothing to prevent it, unless it can be shown that one had a duty to act. This is a particular case of the general principle that their omission to act is not usually the Actus Reus of an offence. If a police constable takes no action while a man is kicked to death nearby, he will be liable as an accessory to murder. Particularly troublesome cases arise where it is known that at least one of the group of people present committed the offence, but it is impossible to say which one. In general, either all must be acquired or it must be shown that all were accessories to the (unknown) principal.
  • The fact that the principal is acquitted does not prevent accomplices from being convicted. In fact, evidence of such an acquittal is not even admissible as proof of the innocence of the accomplices. However, evidence of a conviction is admissible as evidence against them (s. 74 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984). If, for example, X encourages Y to rape Z and Y lacks the Mens Rea for rape (he does not know, for example, that he is committing rape, believing the woman to be consenting), he may be acquitted. This does not prevent X from being convicted as an accomplice.
  • If, in the previous example, Y does carry out the Actus Reus of rape but lacks Mens Rea, then rape has, technically, not been committed. Or has it? Has X raped Z? What if X is a woman? A woman cannot be convicted of rape. So, if rape has not been committed, can X be guilty of being an accomplice to rape? This is difficult if there was, technically, no rape. So this means that X is guilty of being an accomplice to the Actus Reus of rape, not to rape.
  • Although the acquittal of the principal does not in itself absolve the accomplices from liability, it may do so if it is shown that there was no Actus Reus. If a bus conductor carelessly signals the driver to reverse and a passer-by is run over and killed, the driver has not committed the Actus Reus of dangerous driving. He was carefully following the instructions of the conductor. If there was no Actus reus, there could be no accessory. However, in such a case, the conductor may be liable for manslaughter as a principal.
  • An accomplice may withdraw his services and thereby escape liability, but he may remain liable for conspiracy and incitement. If he does withdraw, his withdrawal must be communicated unequivocally to the principal. In addition, it must be before the commission of the offence or any acts related to it that are ‘more than preparatory’. Mere repentance is not enough; the mens rea of being an accomplice is relevant when the accomplice adopts that role, not when the substantive offence is committed.
  • In general, there is nothing to prevent the victim of an offence from being found to be an accessory to that offence. However, a statute that is created to protect a particular class of people from some offence is usually construed as absolving victims from being accessories to the offence. Thus, a girl aged under 13 cannot be convicted of aiding and abetting a man to have sexual intercourse with her, although this is, of course, an offence.
  • A police officer has, in theory, no greater authority to become an accomplice to a crime than anyone else, however worthy the motive. An Entrapment operation may amount to conspiracy, incitement, or aiding and abetting an offence. The courts have historically been fairly lenient towards police officers charged with such offences.

It can be very difficult to distinguish between a Joint enterprise, where all offenders are jointly liable by means of sharing a criminal purpose, and a situation where a group of offenders are liable as accomplices for offences committed by others in the group. It is not clear that English law even has a distinct concept of ‘joint enterprise’, although some have argued that it does.

The term accomplice is not normally used to describe a person who assists an offender after the offence has been committed (see: Assistance after the offence). Nor is it used of a person who incites another to the offence (because the offence need not be committed for the offence of incitement to be made out). In fact, the offences related to offering assistance after the offence (as defined in s. 4 of the Criminal law Act of 1967) are similar to those of being an accomplice, but there are some important distinctions.

First, the ‘assistant’ can be guilty even if the principal is acquitted, as is the case for an accomplice. However, an accomplice can be convicted if the principal is acquitted, even if it is recognised that the principal is not guilty. In the trial of the assistant, the principal must be held to be guilty, even if he was acquitted in his own trial. This means that, in the ‘rape’ example above, X could not be found guilty of assisting Y to evade arrest because Y could not be shown to be guilty of rape. X could, however, be found guilty of being an accomplice to rape, even if the actual rapist were acquitted.

Second, it is an offence to be an accomplice to an indictable offence, but the offences of assistance after the offence refer to an Arrestable offence. While there is some overlap between these groups of offences, they are not identical.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 9th April 2024.

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