You don’t have to be the one to perpetrate a crime in order to face criminal charges. Helping someone commit a crime can also land you in serious trouble. There are three points at which you could help someone else commit a criminal act – and these are treated differently under the law:
- Helping someone during a crime is known as an accomplice.
- Helping someone prior to the crime is an accessory before the fact.
- Helping someone after a crime has been committed is an accessory after the fact.
Accessory before the fact is when a person helps someone else to commit a crime through encouraging or enabling them to do it. This type of situation comes with principal liability, which means that if a court finds you guilty of being an accessory before the fact, then you would face the same potential sentence as the person who actually committed the crime. This is similar to an accomplice who also faces the same punishment as the perpetrator.
By contrast, accessory after the fact is when a person helps someone out after they’ve committed a crime – to avoid arrest or punishment. Helping someone under this definition means doing anything that will prevent law enforcement from finding the person or making an arrest. It can also be anything that helps the person to avoid going to jail. The person must know about the criminal activity when helping the other person. If there is no knowledge of the crime, then it does not make the person an accessory. There is no principal liability for an accessory after the fact. It comes with its own punishment guidelines.
It’s important to understand how involvement in a crime – whether direct or indirect – could lead to legal consequences. However, it’s also worth understanding that you can’t be penalized for unwittingly protecting a criminal.