Other Free Encyclopedias » Law Library - American Law and Legal Information » Crime and Criminal Law » Accomplices - Principal Liability: Too Much Influence Exerted By The Helper, Core Cases Of Accomplice Liability, The Helper's Level Of Commitment To The Principal's Criminal Venture

Accomplices - Principal Liability: Too Much Influence Exerted By The Helper

act innocent felon safecracker

Cases of principal liability on the part of a would-be helper arise when the would-be helper acts in a way that allows us to say that it is as though the helper commits the crime himself. Certainly one can perform an action by getting others to do it. We say, for example, "Louis XIV built Versailles," even though the actual construction was not done by him. Indeed, we can think of cases where the principal is not a principal at all, but is simply, perhaps metaphorically, a tool, instrument, or means of someone else. Examples of such cases include cases where someone occupying what would otherwise be the position of the helper recruits a lunatic or a child to do the deed or tricks, forces, or even hypnotizes someone occupying what would otherwise be the position of the principal. These cases involve such coercion or manipulation of susceptible parties that the manipulated or coerced party's act is fishy enough for him to be called "not responsible" or for his act to be judged "not his own." Thus courts tend to reject the notion that providing a gun to a lunatic (the gunprovider being unaware of the lunatic's incapacity) to use to assault someone somehow makes the assault the gun-provider's and not the gunwielding lunatic's. For one person's act to be wholly someone else's, the person to whom we attribute the act must act in a way that shows he sees his act as such; one cannot, after all, use someone else inadvertently. Were, for example, a ring-leader to pay a safecracker to steal some jewels from a vault for a share of the profits, it is not as though the ringleader sees himself cracking the safe and stealing the jewels—he sees the safe-cracker doing it. The only evidence of his seeing himself doing it would be his placing such constraints on the safecracker's autonomy that it ceases to be the safecracker's intentional, purposeful, or deliberate act. Thus if the ringleader were to force the safecracker to crack the safe by putting a gun to his head or were he to trick the safecracker into believing that the safe and its contents really are the property of the ringleader, then the ringleader steals the jewels through the safecracker. In such a case, the ringleader would be the principal thief and not a helper at all, and the safecracker, who is seemingly the principal thief, would not be held responsible for his actions; instead, he would be viewed as an innocent means or instrument of the manipulative ringleader.

It is likewise an instance of principal as opposed to accomplice liability where A hands B a package into which A has secretly put a bomb for delivery to a victim A has in mind, or where A places B under duress by threatening B with a greater harm if B does not act on A's behalf than if B does. There A acts through B by seeing B not as a killer, but as an innocent dupe—a giant fuse, if you will. A sees himself killing the victim by manipulating or forcing B into doing A's dirty work for him. A harder case to classify is one in which a malicious felon places an innocent person or a police officer in circumstances where it is the innocent's right or the officer's duty to apply deadly force to repel the felon's threat of force, and the innocent or officer kills someone other than the malicious felon. In such cases the felon does not act through the innocent or officer because missing is the malicious felon's intention to use the killer. The felon's intention is likely that no such encounter materialize, except in so-called shield cases (where a third party is used by escaping suspects or those under siege as a shield against police gunfire), or in cases where one felon sends an innocent or confederate outside to a certain death in order to facilitate the malicious felon's escape. With such a bad intention and excessive risk at play, it is easy to see how in those cases we may conclude that the felon acts through the killer to deflect the justified use of deadly force away from the felon and toward another target.

When we are faced with questions of whether a would-be helper has manipulated the would-be principal to the point that the would-be principal's responsibility is wiped out altogether, the would-be helper/manipulator's conception of his own liability does not inhibit his conviction as principal. This is because the idea of "innocent agency" or "perpetration by means" is linked only to those cases where the principal intends to pursue an objective through the manipulative use of an agent. In other words, perpetrating harm through another is a narrower category of action than is causing another to do something harmful. Causing another to do something harmful, unlike perpetrating harm through another, is indifferent to whether the originating actor (whom we are considering treating as a manipulator) intends to reduce someone else to his influence or control. In other words, causing can be mechanical whereas using cannot. Accordingly, the ringleader who recruits an insane safe-cracker—not knowing of the safecracker's affliction—may in some important sense cause the ensuing theft, but does not commit the theft through the insane thief. Missing there is the ringleader's intent to use, manipulate, or otherwise act through the safecracker. When, however, the harmful act is orchestrated by a user or manipulator who is counting on the agent's susceptibility, incapacity, or lack of responsibility, the idea of innocent agency or perpetration-bymeans describes cases where the manipulated agent is a lunatic, a child, someone duped as to material facts, or anyone who cannot choose what is good and right due to coercion or any other constraint on the innocent agent that is known to the dominant party. In such cases it makes no difference whether the harm is committed by lying, stealing, frightening, shooting, stabbing, or nonconsensual intercourse (as in an infamous British case in which a husband misled an intoxicated man into thinking the husband's wife wanted intercourse with the intoxicated stranger) (R. v. Cogan & Leak, 1976 Q.B. (Eng. C.A.)). Each of these cases instantiates principal, not accomplice, liability on the part of the dominant party.

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