Understanding the Difference Between an Accomplice and an Accessory

Sometimes a crime may only involve one perpetrator. However, in many serious crimes, there will be multiple parties that contribute to pulling off the offense. A principal in a crime is the one who pulls the trigger in a murder, brandishes a knife during a bank robbery, or commits the actual criminal act. 

Two other common designations for people involved in crimes are accomplices and accessories. Sometimes, whether or not someone is charged as one of those and not the other can mean decades in prison. Therefore, it’s important to understand the differences between the two. 

What Is an Accomplice?

Accomplices (commonly called aiders and abettors) are more connected to the crime itself than accessories and are therefore usually subject to harsher penalties. The key difference between accessories and accomplices is that accessories are not present at the crime scene, while accomplices are present and usually have an integral part in the criminal act. Sometimes, depending on the extent to which someone contributes to a crime, an accomplice will be designated as a “principal in the second degree.” In that vein, many states will seek to punish accomplices to the same extent as the first-degree principal. Even if the main principle goes to trial and is found not guilty, the accomplice could still be tried as a principal.

What Is an Accessory?

Accessories are usually people who cover up the crime after it has been committed. A common designation you may have heard is someone being charged as an “accessory after the fact.” This can mean hiding stolen money or providing safe harbor to the principal or accomplices to avoid capture by the authorities. “Accessories before the fact” do exist, but states will often seek to prosecute them as accomplices.

Common Purpose Doctrine

As with many criminal cases, intent is important in determining someone’s culpability. The Common Purpose doctrine exists to clarify criminal roles in these situations. If someone helps with the planning of a bank robbery, for example, with the intention of contributing to a successful heist, then they are considered an accomplice. If the authorities do not think they can prove an accomplice had prior knowledge of a crime, they will often seek to prosecute the defendant as an accessory.

Contact Us Today

Depending on the severity of the crime, Alabama criminal codes will have accomplices charged with anything from a Class A Felony to a simple criminal violation. Whatever charges you might be facing in connection to a crime, we aim to help you secure the best possible judgment. Call us now at (256) 233-2025 to give yourself a fighting chance with an experienced and caring legal team.

Written by John M. Totten

John M. Totten

John's office is in Athens, Alabama, where he has helped thousands of people in North Alabama with everything from family law issues, to catastrophic injury and death cases, to criminal defense.