accessory before the fact | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee

An accessory before the fact is a  person who aids, abets, or encourages another person to commit a crime but who is not present at the scene when the crime takes place.

Many jurisdictions consider a person who is an accessory before the fact to be an accomplice.

See also Accessory After the Fact

At common law,

“in felony cases, parties to a crime were divided into four distinct categories: (1) principals in the first degree who actually perpetrated the offense; (2) principals in the second degree who were actually or constructively present at the scene of the crime and aided or abetted its commission; (3) accessories before the fact who aided or abetted the crime, but were not present at its commission; and (4) accessories after the fact who rendered assistance after the crime was complete.”

~STANDEFER v. UNITED STATES, 447 U.S. 10 (1980)

An accessory before the fact is a type of criminal liability that can apply to individuals who aid or encourage another person to commit a crime. Under this principle, a person can be held criminally responsible for a crime that they did not commit themselves but that they played a role in facilitating.

The term “accessory before the fact” typically applies to situations in which a person assists or encourages another person to commit a crime but is not physically present at the scene when the crime takes place. For example, an individual who provides information or resources to help another person plan or execute a crime may be considered an accessory before the fact.

To be considered an accessory before the fact, it is generally necessary to demonstrate that the individual in question had knowledge of the planned crime and intended to facilitate its commission. This can include providing weapons or other materials, providing transportation or logistics support, or providing information or advice about how to commit the crime.

Under the law, an accessory before the fact can be held criminally liable for the same offense as the principal perpetrator of the crime. This means that if the person who they aided or encouraged is convicted of a crime, the accessory before the fact can also be charged and convicted of the same crime.

However, in some cases, an accessory before the fact may be able to claim a defense, such as lack of knowledge or duress. For example, if an individual was coerced into assisting in the commission of a crime and did not have knowledge of the crime’s details or consequences, they may be able to claim a defense of duress or coercion.

The concept of accessory liability is rooted in the idea that individuals who aid or abet criminal activity are just as culpable as those who commit the crime themselves. By holding accessories before the fact responsible for their role in facilitating criminal activity, the criminal justice system aims to deter others from engaging in similar behavior and promote accountability for all parties involved in a crime.

However, there are some concerns about the fairness of accessory liability laws. Critics argue that these laws can be overly broad, punishing individuals for minor or tangential roles in a crime, and can result in harsh penalties for those who did not physically commit the offense. Additionally, there are concerns that accessory liability laws can be used to unfairly target marginalized or vulnerable populations, who may be more likely to be caught up in criminal activity.

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On this site:  Criminal Law » Section 2.1 » Accessories

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