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Accomplice Liability in Criminal Cases


Accomplice liability has been one of the more difficult concepts for clients to grasp – and for good reason. Under federal law, a person who orders, aids, abets, or assists in the commission of a crime can be charged with the underlying crime and will face the same penalties as the primary offender.  

Accomplice Liability Under Federal Law: 18 U.S.C. § 2(a)

The federal accomplice liability statute states that a person who furthers – or who “aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures” – the commission of a federal offense “is punishable as the principal.” In other words, a person may be liable for a crime he has not personally carried out if he helps another person to complete its commission. 

What Does the Government Have to Prove? 

While different jurisdictions may set forth the requirements in different ways, the general consensus is that the Federal Government must establish two elements – 1) the defendant took an affirmative action in furtherance of the underlying offense, and 2) the defendant took that action with the intent of facilitating the offense’s commission. The Government must prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt. 

What Constitutes Affirmative Action?

A defendant is only liable under an accomplice liability theory if he takes an affirmative action. However, the definition of “affirmative action” is broader than many appreciate. The statute “comprehends all assistance rendered by words, acts, encouragement, support, or presence.” Reves v. Ernst & Young, 507 U. S. 170, 178 (1993). In other words, a defendant can be convicted for actively assisting in the crime, or for even simply orally encouraging the commission of it. 

Intent Requirement

The Government must also show – beyond a reasonable doubt – that the defendant intended to advance the underlying offense. An intent to advance just one element of an underlying offense is typically not sufficient – instead, the defendant must have intended to assist with the entirety of the underlying offense. 

In other words, the intent element is satisfied only when a person actively participates in a venture with full knowledge of the circumstances constituting the charged offense.

Does the Primary Offender Have to be Convicted?

The shorter answer is no. To obtain a conviction, the Federal Government must show that the underlying offense was committed, but they do not have to show who committed the underlying offense (or obtain a conviction) before obtaining a conviction under an accomplice liability theory. 

Penalties for Aiding and Abetting 

Under the federal statute, anyone who aids and abets the commission of the crime may be charged with the underlying offense. Accordingly, an individual convicted for aiding and abetting will be subject to the same penalties as the individual that actually committed the offense. 

Consult With Our Team

If you or a loved one is facing federal charges, it is important that you retain an attorney well-versed in this area of law. Contact our office for a free consultation.

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