What's the difference among aiding, abetting, and being an accessory to a crime?

These terms refer to people who encourage or help others to commit crimes.

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One kind of accessory that never makes you look better is a criminal charge as an accessory to a crime. Aiding and abetting are similar and related charges to being an accessory. This article discusses the crimes of aiding, abetting, and acting as an accessory to a crime.

Aiding, abetting, and acting as an accessory to a crime are violations of state law and the definitions of the crimes vary from state to state. However, the crimes have certain general features that are common in every state.

Differences Among the Three Crimes

There is a great deal of overlap among these definitions, and the terms are usually used interchangeably. Here's how they differ:

  • Aiding is assisting, supporting, or helping another to commit a crime.
  • Abetting is encouraging, inciting, or inducing another to commit a crime. Aiding and abetting is a term often used to describe a single act.
  • An accessory is someone who does any of the above things in support of a principle’s commission of crime. State laws typically distinguish between accessories “after the fact” and “before the fact.” These terms describe a person’s assistance to the crime before or after it is committed.

Common Features Among the Three Charges

All three crimes describe someone charged as an “accomplice” to a crime committed by another, who is usually called the “principle.”

A person charged with aiding, abetting, or as an accessory is accused of providing assistance to the principle before or after the commission of a crime . The person charged with aiding, abetting, or as an accessory is usually not present at the commission of the crime. All three charges require proof that the accomplice knew that a crime was going to be or had been committed by the principle.

Knowledge and assistance

Even someone who learns of a crime after the fact and who in fact may disapprove of the crime, but who helps the person who committed it, may be charged with aiding, abetting, or as an accessory. For example, When Jay Gatsby takes the wheel from Daisy Buchanan after she drunkenly hits and kills her husband’s mistress (what are the odds?!), he has committed the crime of aiding and abetting, and is an accessory to the crime of vehicular manslaughter committed by Daisy. (Of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald took care of punishing Gatsby far more harshly than the law would have if he’d been caught.) Gatsby was not driving and played no role in the drunk driving incident that led to the victim’s death; he was likely very dismayed by the crime. But, his actions were intended to conceal Daisy’s crime and therefore constitute aiding and abetting and make him an accessory after the fact.

Conspiracy

If the degree of involvement of the aider and abetter is great enough, he or she may be charged with conspiracy. Often, the state will charge a person with conspiracy when that person has been directly and significantly involved in planning or concealing a crime. For example, suppose a person tips off a friend that a neighbor always leavesopen the side door to the garage housing his valuable tools, knowing his friend will steal the tools. If the friend commits the theft, the tipster may be charged with aiding, abetting, or as an accessory to the theft. But, a person who befriends a neighbor, surreptitiously takes the key to the garage from the neighbor’s counter, and passes the keys off to a friend with specific information of when the neighbor is at work may have edged into conspiracy in the theft the friend then commits. (For more information on conspiracy, see Conspiracy: Laws and Penalties.)

See a Lawyer

If you have questions about aiding, abetting, or being an accessory, talk to an experienced criminal defense lawyer in your area. If you have been charged with one of those crimes, see a lawyer as soon as possible. These are serious charges and can result in prison sentences, large fines, or both.

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