Accomplice Actus Reus

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

In both federal law and the law of the majority of states, an accomplice is someone who voluntarily acts to assist in the commission of an offense. The terms often used to describe the type of criminal act required for accomplice liability include “aid,” “abet,” “assist,” “counsel,” “command,” “induce,” and “procure.”

Specific Actions Qualifying as Accomplice Criminal Act

So, what does it mean to be an “accomplice” when a crime is committed? Being an accomplice is not just about being there when a crime happens. Instead, you become an accomplice when you do something specific to help carry out the crime. This could mean a range of actions. For example, you could be part of the team that plans out the crime, detailing how it will happen and what each person will do. Another way you could be an accomplice is by driving the getaway car, helping the criminals to escape after the act is done. You could even be an accomplice if you trick or lure a victim into a place where the crime will happen.

The Model Penal Code, which is like a guidebook that many states use to shape their laws, puts it this way: an accomplice is anyone who “aids or attempts to aid” someone else in planning or committing a crime. This is a broad definition and captures any help you might offer, whether it’s before the crime, like planning, or during the crime, like driving the getaway car. So, even if you didn’t do the actual illegal act—say, you didn’t rob the store, but you drove the getaway car—you’re still considered an accomplice under this rule.

The Insufficiency of Mere Presence

You might wonder, what if you’re just there when a crime happens but you don’t actually do anything? Would you still be considered an accomplice? The answer is usually “no.” Just being present at the scene of a crime doesn’t automatically make you an accomplice. For instance, let’s say you’re hanging out with some friends, and they suddenly decide to shoplift. If you stand there shocked and don’t join in or help them in any way, you aren’t an accomplice. Even if you realize what’s happening and run away, you still wouldn’t typically be tagged as an accomplice.

This is a pretty important point, especially when people might be quick to assume guilt by association. The law is usually careful about this. It’s not just about where you are; it’s about what you do. If you have a “legal duty” to prevent the crime and don’t, that might be a different story. But generally, just being at the wrong place at the wrong time isn’t enough to make you legally responsible for someone else’s criminal actions. So, remember, just being there and even running away from the scene doesn’t mean you’re helping in the crime; there has to be some kind of action or intent from your side to be considered an accomplice.

That said, even though the law says mere presence isn’t enough to make you an accomplice, convincing a jury of that can be a different story. In real-life court situations, the atmosphere can get tense and emotional. People sometimes make assumptions based on limited information. If you were at the scene, especially if you’re seen with the wrong crowd, the jury might jump to conclusions. You or your lawyer would have to work really hard to show that, despite your presence, you had no involvement in the crime. Witnesses, security footage, and even your own testimony could be crucial in making this clear. The challenge is that the jury is made up of humans with their own opinions and emotions, and sometimes, legal facts and practical outcomes don’t line up neatly. So, even though the law might technically be on your side, getting a jury to see that could be an uphill battle.

Legal Duty to Act and Accomplice Liability

If you’re thinking that just being present at the scene of a crime isn’t enough to get you into trouble, there’s an important exception you should know about: the “legal duty to act.” This is when you’re not just any bystander; you’re someone who has a special responsibility to do something to prevent the crime from happening. For example, if you’re a security guard, a teacher in a school, or even a parent in some cases, you might have a legal duty to step in and stop a crime if you can. The Model Penal Code, which is a set of legal guidelines that many states look to, makes it clear on this point. It says you can become an accomplice in a crime if you have a legal duty to prevent that crime but don’t take proper action to stop it. So, in these cases, doing nothing isn’t really “doing nothing” in the eyes of the law; it’s failing in your duty, and that could make you legally responsible as an accomplice.

Modification History

File Created:  07/12/2018

Last Modified:  09/12/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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