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Often more than one criminal defendant participates in the commission of a crime. Defendants working together with a common criminal purpose are acting with complicity and are responsible for the same crimes, to the same degree.
At early common law, there were four parties to a crime. A principal in the first degree actually committed the crime. A principal in the second degree was present at the crime scene and assisted in the crime’s commission. An accessory before the fact was not present at the crime scene but helped prepare for the crime’s commission. An accessory after the fact helped a party after he or she committed a crime by providing aid in escaping or avoiding arrest and prosecution or conviction. In modern times, there are only two parties to a crime: a principal, who is in the same category with his or her accomplice(s), and accessory(ies). Principals actually commit the crime, and they and their accomplices are criminally responsible for it. Accessories play the same role as accessories after the fact at common law.
The criminal act element required to be an accomplice in most jurisdictions is assistance in the commission of a crime. Words are enough to constitute the accomplice criminal act. Mere presence at the scene, even presence at the scene combined with flight after the crime’s commission, is not enough to constitute the accomplice criminal act unless there is a legal duty to act.
The criminal intent element required for accomplice liability in many jurisdictions is specific intent or purposely to commit the crime at issue. In some states, general intent or knowingly that the principal will commit the crime creates an inference of intent if the offense is serious. In a minority of jurisdictions, general intent or knowingly that the principal will commit the crime is sufficient.
The natural and probable consequences doctrine holds accomplices criminally responsible for all crimes the principal commits that are reasonably foreseeable. In many jurisdictions an accomplice can be prosecuted for a crime the principal commits even if the principal is not prosecuted or acquitted.
Vicarious liability transfers criminal responsibility from one party to another because of a special relationship. Vicarious liability is common between employers and employees and is the basis for corporate criminal liability. Pursuant to modern corporate criminal liability, a corporation can be fined for a crime(s) a corporate agent or employee commits during the scope of employment. The corporate agent or employee also is criminally responsible for his or her conduct. In general, the law disfavors individual criminal vicarious liability. The law in this area is evolving as the incidence of juveniles committing crimes increases.
In modern times, an accessory is the equivalent of an accessory after the fact at common law. The criminal act element required for an accessory is providing assistance to a principal in escape, avoiding detection, or arrest and prosecution, or conviction for the commission of a felony, high-level misdemeanor, or any crime, depending on the jurisdiction. Words are enough to constitute the accessory criminal act. Several jurisdictions exempt family members from criminal responsibility for acting as an accessory.
The criminal intent element required for an accessory in most jurisdictions is general intent or knowingly that the principal committed a crime, and specific intent or purposely that the principal escape, avoid detection, or arrest and prosecution, or conviction for the offense. Accessory is a separate crime that is usually graded as a misdemeanor, although some jurisdictions grade accessory as a felony.
You are a law professor searching for cases to illustrate certain legal concepts for your students. Read the prompt, review the case, and then decide which legal concept it represents. Check your answers using the answer key at the end of the chapter.