Accomplice Mens Rea

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

The element of criminal intent needed for accomplice liability can differ depending on the jurisdiction. In a majority of jurisdictions, specific intent or purposeful action is required when aiding or assisting the principal in committing a crime. “Purposely” signifies that the accomplice has the desire for the principal to commit the offense.

The Model Penal Code aligns with this approach, stating that the accomplice must act “with the purpose of promoting or facilitating the commission of the offense.”

Minority Jurisdiction and General Intent

In contrast to the majority of jurisdictions that necessitate specific intent for accomplice liability, a minority of legal systems take a more lenient approach by only requiring general intent. In these jurisdictions, an individual can be considered an accomplice if they merely have knowledge that their actions will promote or facilitate the commission of a crime. The person doesn’t have to purposefully desire the crime to be committed; it’s enough if they act knowingly. This lower threshold for intent effectively broadens the scope of who can be held liable as an accomplice. While it may make it easier for the prosecution to secure convictions, it also raises ethical questions around culpability and fairness. Essentially, under general intent, individuals who may not fully grasp the implications of their actions could still find themselves subject to criminal liability, making this a somewhat contentious issue in legal discussions.

Who Deserves to Be Labeled an Accomplice?

Blameworthiness and Inadvertent Assistance

Accomplice liability is a legal concept intended to hold accountable those who meaningfully contribute to the commission of a crime. However, it’s crucial to underline that this liability should only be ascribed to individuals who are genuinely blameworthy and deserving of such a legal designation. This distinction becomes especially relevant when considering cases where someone has inadvertently assisted in a crime. If an individual unknowingly or accidentally provides aid to a principal actor in a crime, they should not be held liable as an accomplice. The essence of accomplice liability is moral culpability, and penalizing someone who lacked the intent to further a criminal endeavor contradicts this fundamental principle. This nuance is essential for preserving the integrity of the legal system, ensuring that only those who truly have a culpable mindset are subjected to criminal liability as an accomplice.

Foreseeability and Natural and Probable Consequences Doctrine

Some states apply the “natural and probable consequences” doctrine. Under this standard, if a defendant assists the principal with the intention of furthering a specific crime and a different but foreseeable crime is committed, the defendant could be liable as an accomplice. However, it’s worth noting that the Model Penal Code and most legal commentators reject this doctrine. According to the commentary on the Model Penal Code, this position is seen as “incongruous and unjust.”

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.

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