principal | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

A principal in criminal law is a person who commits or assists in the commission of a crime and is therefore held equally responsible for the crime.

In the context of criminal law, the term “principal” refers to a person who is directly involved in the commission of a crime, either as the person who physically carries out the illegal act or as an accomplice who assists in the commission of the crime. The term “principal” is often used in contrast to “accessory,” which refers to a person who assists in the commission of a crime but is not directly involved in its execution.

Under the common law, principals are classified into two categories: principals in the first degree and principals in the second degree. A principal in the first degree is the person who actually commits the crime, while a principal in the second degree is one who aids or abets in the commission of the crime. Both types of principals are equally responsible for the crime and can be punished accordingly.

In addition to aiding and abetting, there are other ways in which a person can be considered a principal. For example, if two or more people conspire to commit a crime, they may all be considered principals in the commission of the crime. Similarly, if a person hires someone to commit a crime, they can be held responsible as a principal for the actions of the hired individual.

In some cases, the concept of principal liability can extend to corporate entities. In such cases, a corporation may be held liable for the criminal actions of its officers or employees, provided that the criminal conduct was committed within the scope of their employment or with the corporation’s authorization.

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Last Modified: 03/13/2023


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