complicity | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Procedural Law

In criminal law, complicity refers to the act of helping or assisting someone else in the commission of a crime.

In the world of criminal law, “complicity” is a term used to describe the involvement of a person in a crime committed by someone else. This involvement could be through helping or assisting in the commission of the crime. The idea is that, even if a person didn’t directly do the illegal act, they can still be held responsible for it if they played a part in making it happen.

Understanding Complicity

Let’s say there are two friends named Alex and Blake. They plan to steal a car. Alex goes and physically steals the car, but Blake helps by keeping watch and signaling if anyone is coming. Blake didn’t actually steal the car, but he helped Alex do it. In this situation, Blake could be charged with complicity because he assisted in the crime.

But what if there’s a third person, Casey, who overhears Alex and Blake planning the theft and doesn’t report it to the police. Is Casey complicit? Not necessarily. Just knowing about a crime doesn’t make a person complicit. To be complicit, a person usually needs to actively help in some way.

Model Penal Code and Complicity

The Model Penal Code (MPC) is a guide created to help standardize criminal laws across different places. It provides a specific definition and elements for complicity.

According to the MPC, a person is an accomplice of another person in the commission of an offense (in other words, complicit) if:

      • With the purpose of promoting or facilitating the offense, he or she aids or agrees or attempts to aid such other person in planning or committing it; or
      • He or she has a legal duty to prevent the commission of the offense but fails to make a proper effort to do so.

So, going back to our example, Blake would likely be considered an accomplice under the MPC because he helped Alex with the purpose of promoting the theft. Casey, who merely knew about the plan but didn’t help, would likely not be considered an accomplice.

Elements of Complicity

In order to prove complicity, there are generally two key elements that must be shown:

      • Knowledge: The person knew that a crime was being planned or committed.
      • Intent to assist: The person intended to help or assist in the commission of the crime.

Let’s add another person to our example. Let’s say that before the theft, Alex asks his friend Dana to borrow her car, but he doesn’t tell her why. Dana agrees and lends Alex her car, which Alex and Blake use in the theft. Is Dana complicit in the crime?

While Dana did help by providing the car, she didn’t know about the crime. So, she likely wouldn’t be found guilty of complicity because she lacked knowledge of the crime.


In conclusion, complicity is a crucial concept in criminal law. It allows for people who help others commit crimes to be held responsible. However, the standards for proving complicity, such as the requirements of knowledge and intent to assist, are set to ensure that only those who knowingly and intentionally contribute to a crime are held accountable. Understanding the idea of complicity can help us better appreciate the ways in which our actions can have serious consequences, even if we’re not the ones directly committing a crime.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/14/2023


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