Modern Accomplice Statutes

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

The modern legal landscape can be confusing due to the persistence of old common law terminology. In most current jurisdictions, such as under 18 U.S.C. § 2, all accomplices are considered to have equal criminal responsibility, even though the main criminal actor is often still referred to as the ‘principal.’

The Concept of Derivative Liability

The term ‘derivative’ is frequently used to describe accomplice liability. Essentially, an accomplice doesn’t have to directly commit the unlawful act (actus reus) to be held responsible for it. The underlying logic is that anyone willingly participating in criminal conduct should face the same accountability as the main criminal actor.

Criminal Liability under MPC

The Model Penal Code (MPC) provides a comprehensive framework for assessing criminal liability, especially when one person is responsible for the actions of another. According to the MPC, there are three distinct scenarios under which an individual can be held criminally liable for another person’s actions. The first scenario arises when a specific statute explicitly assigns liability for the actions of another person. This is usually codified and explicitly outlined within the text of the legal statute itself.

The second scenario is when the individual serves as an accomplice to the crime. Under the MPC Section 2.06, a person is considered an accomplice of another person in the commission of an offense if, “with the purpose of promoting or facilitating the commission of the offense,” they either “aid or agree or attempt to aid such other person in planning or committing it,” or fail to prevent the crime when legally obliged to do so. This section elaborates that the accomplice must share the same “purpose” as the principal actor, making the mental state a crucial element for determining liability.

The third scenario involves causing a person with a legal defense available to them to commit the crime. While this is a more complex and rarely invoked form of liability, it’s essential in certain circumstances, like manipulating minors or those with diminished capacity to engage in criminal conduct. Overall, the Model Penal Code offers a nuanced approach to criminal liability, ensuring that those who aid, abet, or otherwise contribute to the commission of an offense can be appropriately held to account.

State Variations: Case of Arkansas

Many states have streamlined their laws by reducing the number of categories. For example, Arkansas has consolidated most distinctions under a single “Accomplices” statute. The exception is ‘accessories after the fact,’ which are now categorized as crimes against the administration of justice.

Accomplice Definition in Arkansas

In the state of Arkansas, the legal parameters for defining an accomplice are laid out in a manner that identifies specific actions and mental states that can make an individual liable for another person’s criminal behavior. Under Arkansas law, an individual is deemed an accomplice if they engage in specific types of conduct with the express intention of “promoting or facilitating” a crime. The law explicitly lists three actions that can qualify someone as an accomplice to a criminal act.

The first criterion for being an accomplice in Arkansas is the act of “soliciting or encouraging” another person to commit a crime. This means that the individual takes active steps to promote the criminal behavior, either by directly suggesting the act or by providing moral or psychological support to the principal actor. This form of encouragement serves as a catalyst for the crime, and the law holds such individuals accountable as if they had committed the offense themselves.

The second action that qualifies someone as an accomplice is “aiding or attempting to aid in planning or committing the crime.” This is a broader category that can include actions such as providing the tools or resources needed for the crime, acting as a lookout, or otherwise helping to plan or execute the criminal act. Importantly, the individual must have the purpose of facilitating the crime for this criterion to apply. The third and final action that can define someone as an accomplice in Arkansas is the failure to prevent the offense when one has a legal obligation to do so. This is especially pertinent in professional settings or familial relationships where there is a legal or ethical duty to intervene.

For crimes that necessitate specific results—such as murder, which requires the death of the victim—these accomplice actions apply in a manner that promotes or facilitates the specific outcome. In summary, Arkansas law offers a comprehensive approach to defining accomplice liability, capturing a range of behaviors and intentions that contribute to the commission of a crime.

Intent and Liability

Two Types of Criminal Intent

The doctrine of accomplice liability is deeply rooted in the evaluation of an individual’s mental state or intent at the time of the crime. To fully grasp the complexities of this legal concept, it’s essential to recognize that there are two separate but interrelated forms of criminal intent that an accomplice must possess. The first type of intent pertains to the substantive offense itself. This means that the accomplice must have a “culpable mental state” that aligns with the requirements of the underlying crime being committed. For example, if the primary crime is theft, the accomplice must share the intent to unlawfully take another’s property. Essentially, this first type of intent borrows its “mens rea,” or mental state, from the foundational crime, thereby linking the accomplice to the primary offender in a meaningful way.

The second type of intent focuses on the actions taken to aid and abet the primary crime. This form of intent is not merely passive awareness but active participation or facilitation in the commission of the crime. Whether the accomplice serves as a lookout, provides the weapon, or drives the getaway car, their mental state must be geared towards helping the principal offender succeed in committing the crime. It’s this dual nature of intent—relating both to the substantive offense and to the actions taken in aid of that offense—that solidifies an individual’s status as an accomplice under the law. Together, these two forms of intent establish a foundation for ascribing criminal liability to an accomplice, making them legally accountable for the crimes they have helped to facilitate.

Federal Law on Accomplice Intent

Federal laws introduce a nuanced perspective on the issue of accomplice intent, distinct from many state-level interpretations. Under federal statutes, an accomplice is not strictly required to have the same level or type of intent as the principal offender to be held liable. Instead, the law uses the concept of a “community of unlawful intent” to establish criminal responsibility for the accomplice. This means that both the principal and the accomplice must share a common, unlawful goal, although their individual intents may vary in scope or intensity. For example, while the principal may have a clear intent to commit a robbery, the accomplice may only intend to intimidate or create fear, without necessarily sharing the principal’s specific aim of theft. Despite these differences in their specific intents, both parties can still be held criminally liable due to their shared unlawful objective. This federal standard allows for a broader range of scenarios in which an individual can be considered an accomplice, extending liability to those who engage in concerted criminal activities even if their intentions are not identical to those of the principal actor.

Uniformity and Variability in Liability

Accomplice liability is often a complex legal concept to navigate, but one key principle holds across various jurisdictions: accomplices typically share the same level of criminal liability as the principal actor, regardless of their physical presence at the scene of the crime. This principle introduces a degree of uniformity in how accomplices are treated under the law, providing a consistent basis for prosecution. However, it’s important to note that mere presence at the crime scene and awareness of the criminal activity taking place are not sufficient conditions for establishing someone as an accomplice. This clarifies that liability is not just a matter of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but requires active participation or encouragement in the criminal act. The law seeks to differentiate between those who are merely witnesses to a crime and those who have engaged in some form of participation, whether it be planning, encouraging, or directly aiding in the criminal act. This nuanced approach allows for the appropriate allocation of criminal liability, making sure that only those who have actively contributed to the criminal activity are held accountable for it.

Model Penal Code and Accountability

The Model Penal Code (MPC) takes a comprehensive view of criminal accountability, focusing heavily on an individual’s intentional participation in a criminal enterprise. According to the MPC, if you have actively participated in a criminal act with the specific intent of furthering the targeted crime, you are deemed as criminally liable as if you had personally carried out the offense. This aspect of the MPC underscores the importance of intent in establishing criminal liability, extending responsibility not just to the primary actors but also to those who knowingly aid, abet, or facilitate the crime in any way. The emphasis here is on the willful association with the criminal venture and the desire to see it succeed. By aligning the liability of accomplices with that of the principal actors, the MPC seeks to create a uniform standard of accountability, discouraging potential accomplices from participating in criminal activities by raising the stakes of their involvement. This legal framework sends a clear message: criminal liability is not confined to the one who ‘pulls the trigger,’ but extends to anyone who intentionally contributes to the criminal act.

Evidence and Proof

In the realm of criminal law, proving someone as an accomplice doesn’t always require direct evidence or a formal agreement between the principal and the accomplice beforehand. Liability can, in fact, be established through circumstantial evidence alone. This type of evidence may include actions, behaviors, or situations that imply a person’s involvement in a crime, even if they don’t definitively prove it. For example, being present in a getaway car can serve as circumstantial evidence of aiding and abetting. Importantly, to label someone as an accomplice, the prosecution doesn’t have to provide a smoking gun; they merely need to demonstrate that the individual in question contributed to the commission of the crime in some way, such as aiding, abetting, or encouraging the principal actor.

This flexible approach to evidence allows for a broader interpretation of what constitutes being an accomplice, thereby increasing the chances of holding all contributing parties accountable. It also places a considerable burden of caution on individuals, urging them to consider the legal implications of their actions or inactions in situations where a crime is being committed. By recognizing the power of circumstantial evidence, the legal system acknowledges that criminal involvement often exists in the nuances, and even if one’s participation is not overtly obvious, they can still be held criminally liable.

Terms of Art in Accomplice Liability

  • Abet: To encourage or assist another person in the commission of a crime, usually mentally or emotionally.
  • Accomplice: A person who assists, encourages, or facilitates a crime, but does not commit the actus reus themselves.
  • Aid: To provide help or support in the commission of a crime, typically in a tangible or material form.
  • Assist: To give support or aid in the commission of a crime, either physically or through other means such as planning or advising.
  • Coercion: The act of forcing another individual to perform an action against their will, potentially relevant in assessing the liability of an accomplice.
  • Community of Unlawful Intent: A shared purpose among multiple individuals to engage in criminal conduct.
  • Constructive Presence: Being considered legally present at the scene of a crime, even if not physically present, because of significant involvement in the crime.
  • Corroborative: Serving to confirm or support a proposition or theory, usually used to describe evidence that confirms an actor’s criminal intent.
  • Criminal Venture: An enterprise involving two or more people intending to commit a criminal act.
  • Derivative Liability: Legal responsibility that is based on the actions of another person involved in committing a crime.
  • Encourage: To mentally or emotionally bolster another person, leading them to commit a crime.
  • Facilitate: To make easier the commission of a crime, usually by providing tools, information, or other resources.
  • Principal: The main individual responsible for committing the crime.
  • Solicitation: The act of encouraging, advising, or inducing another person to commit a crime.
  • Substantive Offense: The crime for which the accomplice is indirectly responsible due to their support or encouragement.


The text provides an overview of accomplice liability in criminal law. It explains that accomplices face equal responsibility as the principal actor, under the concept of ‘derivative liability.’ The Model Penal Code outlines three scenarios where one person can be criminally liable for another’s actions – when a statute assigns liability, when they are an accomplice, or when they cause someone with a legal defense to commit a crime. Many states like Arkansas have consolidated liability under a single ‘accomplice’ statute. Arkansas law defines an accomplice as someone who encourages, aids, or fails to prevent a crime they have a duty to stop, with the intent to facilitate the offense.

Criminal intent is crucial in accomplice liability. An accomplice must have the same culpable mental state as the crime itself, as well as the intent to actively participate in or facilitate the criminal act. Federal law uses the concept of a ‘community of unlawful intent’ requiring accomplices and principals to share an unlawful goal, even if their individual intents differ. Proof of accomplice liability often relies on circumstantial evidence like presence at the scene rather than direct evidence of involvement. The overarching theme is that accomplices face equal criminal liability as the principal actor, provided they intentionally contributed to the criminal activity in some capacity.

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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