What's the Difference Between Aiding, Abetting, and Being an Accessory to a Crime?

State laws categorize perpetrators—from principals to accomplices to accessories—based on their level of involvement in the crime.

By , Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

One type of accessory that never makes you look better is being criminally charged as an accessory to a crime. Being an accomplice (sometimes called an "aider and abettor") can also get you arrested. The exact definitions of these legal terms vary from state to state, but here's an overview of what these crimes have in common and how they differ.

Accomplice Liability: Common Features Among the Charges

All three crimes—aiding, abetting, and acting as an accessory—describe someone charged as an accomplice to a crime committed by another person, called the "principle." An accomplice helps the principal before or after the crime. The person charged with aiding, abetting, or acting as an accessory doesn't have to be at the scene of the crime to be guilty. But all three charges require proof that the accomplice knew that a crime was going to be or had been committed by the principal.

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, he is an accessory to the crime of vehicular manslaughter committed by Daisy. Gatsby was not driving and played no role in the drunk driving incident that led to the victim's death. But his actions were intended to conceal Daisy's crime and make him an accessory after the fact.


If accomplices are very involved in the crime they may be charged with conspiracy. Often, prosecutors 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 leaves open 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 and abetting the theft. But someone who takes the key to a neighbor's garage and passes it off to a friend may have passed into co-conspirator territory if the friend steals from the garage.

What Is the Difference Between the Three Crimes?

Accomplice liability terms overlap, 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. You'll often hear "aiding and abetting" used to describe a single act of helping a principal.
  • An accessory supports the principal'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.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you've been arrested or charged as an accomplice, talk to a criminal lawyer as soon as possible. A lawyer can answer your questions, investigate the facts, and advocate for you in court. Accomplices can often be punished just as severely as principals. A conviction for aiding, abetting, or acting as an accessory can result in prison sentences, large fines, or both.

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