“Sally, darling, would you please open the bottle of wine?”
Sally smiled at her dashing boyfriend, who was busy pan-searing their steaks. “Sure, honey. Where’s the corkscrew?” She opened a kitchen drawer, closed it when she saw it contained nothing but take-out menus, and then opened the drawer next to it. She found a wadded ball of knitted fabric. Curious, she examined the object more closely. “What’s this, honey?”
Carl glanced over his shoulder. “A cap.”
“It’s… a ski mask.”
“Do you ski?” She found this unlikely since they lived in Florida, but anything was possible.
“No. I hate the cold.”
“Then why do you have a ski mask?”
“I wear it when I rob banks.” He gave her a devilish smile. “It’s my accessory to crime.”
Yeah, okay. I’m sorry. Couldn’t help myself.
What is an accessory to crime? Specific definitions vary by jurisdiction, but a good general definition is this: an accessory is someone who helps commit a crime but doesn’t actually commit the crime itself. The parties who do commit the criminal act are called the principals. A person may be an accessory before or after the fact, depending on when the assistance is given.
Suppose Carl’s car is in the shop, and he asks Sally if he can borrow hers for his next bank heist. She says sure and hands over the keys. She’s now an accessory before the fact. In most of the US, if she was aware she was helping him commit a crime, she is liable for the same punishment as Carl, even though she wasn’t actually at the bank. Not only that. If he shoots and kills someone during the robbery, she’s liable for felony murder—potentially a capital offense—as long as the prosecutor can show that murder was a reasonably foreseeable outcome of a bank robbery.
On the other hand, suppose Carl’s car is doing fine. He doesn’t borrow hers and doesn’t tell her he plans to rob First National Savings & Loan. But after the robbery, he shows up at her place with a bag of money and a big smile. “Darling, would you do me a favor and stash this sack of cash in your closet? Oh, and if anyone asks, tell them I was here all day, okay?” If she agrees, she’s an accessory after the fact. She’s going to end up being charged with something like obstructing justice. The prosecutor will have to prove she knew Carl had committed a crime and she intended to help him get away with it. She will not be punished as severely as Carl, and if he happened to kill someone during that robbery, she can’t be charged with felony murder.
What about an accomplice (sometimes called an aider and abettor)? They also help commit crimes, but they’re present at the scene. Suppose Sally drives Carl to the bank—knowing he’ll rob it—waits in the parking lot until he comes running out and jumps into the passenger seat, and then drives away. She’s an accomplice. And just like an accessory before the fact, she’s as criminally liable as Carl.
There are all sorts of interesting twists we can add. What if Carl gets killed by a police officer during the robbery? If Sally helped him, she’s still liable for any crimes he committed. She could even be charged with his murder—even though she wasn’t there and a cop lawfully shot him! Or what if Carl’s a snake and rats her out in exchange for a plea deal? Then Sally might do more time than him. We can imagine her fuming in prison.
Accomplice liability offers the possibility of all sorts of interesting plot twists. And a bad pun or two.