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 - Core Cases Of Accomplice Liability

helper principal crime aid

What must the helper do to be an accomplice to the principal's crime? In what way is it as though helpers who do not coerce or manipulate their principals commit their principal's crimes? The helper has merely helped. But helping, say, burglary, is not committing burglary. Nor is helping burglary trying to commit burglary, any more than argue is equivalent to "try to convince" or warn is equivalent to "try to alarm." Anglo-American law nevertheless treats a helper as a principal so long as the helper intentionally contributes to the principal's crime. In other words, if the helper pitches in the requisite contribution to the principal's crime, then the helper is punished identically to the principal since Anglo-American law long ago "abrogated" or statutorily eliminated the historically recognized distinction between the amount of punishment one deserves for, say, giving a burglar a crow bar and actually performing the breaking and entering oneself (Standefer v. United States, 447 U.S. 10 (1980) pp. 15–20; Smith). Whether a defendant is (1) a perpetrator (or "principal in the first degree") who actually performs the criminal act; (2) a perpetrator (or "principal in the second degree") who provides some assistance at the scene of the crime; or (3) a helper or an accomplice (or "accessory before the fact") whose aid is given in advance (as in the planning stages) or contemporaneous with but away from the scene makes no difference for purposes of punishment. Indeed, only a helper (or "accessory after the fact") whose assistance comes after the crime has taken place—typically in the form of concealment of the crime—receives a more lenient punishment than those criminals who make their contribution before or during the crime.

While this position of "equivalency" of punishment between those who commit crimes and those who help them is uncontroversial in Anglo-American law, there is some controversy over what sorts of help or contribution count as acts of accomplice liability. We know already that too much influence—too great a contribution—is not a case of accomplice liability at all, but rather a case of principal liability on the part of the would-be helper. So too is it possible that the would-be helper has not done enough for his contribution to count as an instance of accomplice liability. Although there are various formulations of how much the helper must add to the criminal venture, it is clear that encouragement of any sort, whether it be in the form of soliciting or asking the principal or another helper to commit or participate in a crime, cheering on the principal (or another helper), or merely promising the principal (or another helper) to help if necessary is enough to keep the helper on the hook for the principal's actions.

When accomplice liability is based on encouragement, the doctrine operates identically to the doctrine of conspiracy. The doctrine of conspiracy holds that parties who agree to commit a crime are jointly liable not only for the agreement, but also for the carrying out of the conspiratorial objectives (Pinkerton v. United States, 238 U.S. 640 (1946)). An agreement can be formal or explicit as well as implicit or arrived at through "nods and winks." Merely imitating another's behavior, however, falls short of an agreement, even if the imitation is mutual. Thus the Supreme Court has held that a conspiracy to fix prices cannot be proved in the absence of some communicated intention to pursue a specified pricing strategy. Simply pursuing such a strategy—even aware that it is strongly in other competitors' interests to do the same—is "consciously parallel" behavior, but does not make out a case of conspiracy (Interstate Circuit, Inc. v. United States, 306 U.S. 208 (1939)). Many cases of accomplice liability, however, are also cases of conspiracy. Those that are not are cases that originate not with encouragement between parties, but when material aid such as a car, a crowbar, a gun, or poison are supplied, or when the helper serves as a getaway driver or lookout. In these instances—where there is no communication of the helper's intent to help—there is no conspiracy between the principal and the helper to commit a crime. Accordingly, the helper's shared responsibility for aiding the principal's crimes in these instances is based on the law of accomplice liability, as opposed to the laws both of accomplice liability and conspiracy.

When it is aid and not encouragement that the helper adds, it must be "actual" aid that "mattered" or "made a difference" to the principal's actions (Kadish, pp. 358–359). Only when the helper's actions could not have been successful in any case is there no accomplice liability. Thus the question "how much contribution?" comes down simply to whether the helper meant to contribute to the principal's crime, and any action that betrays such an intention will be deemed sufficient to constitute an act of accomplice liability. Thus it has been held that lending a man a smock to keep a battery victim's blood from staining the batterer's suit made enough difference to the batterer to justify our treating the smock-lender as a batterer (judgment of 10 May 1883, 8 RGSt 267; cited in Fletcher, pp. 677–678). So too might an angry judge's interception of a telegram have mattered in a murder, since if the victim had received the telegram, he could have anticipated the gunman behind him on reading the crucial wire: "Four men on horseback with guns following. Look out" (State ex rel. Attorney General v. Tally, 102 Ala. 25, 69, 15 So. 722, 734 (1894)). Even a door opened for a burglar could conceivably make a difference to burglary through the window.

The above are only exceptional examples; but even basic cases of accomplice liability, such as where a helper lends his principal a crowbar for a burglary or drives him to the sites of the crime, are not cases where the helper actually causes the crime, even if the principal has no crow bar of his own or cannot drive a car. It follows that an otherwise superfluous helper whose opening a bank door hastens a robbery by seconds is on the hook as accomplice to the robbery, as flimsy as his contribution may be. Thus the real issue here is not so much whether the helper has "caused" or even "made a difference" to the principal's crime, but rather, whether the helper has put himself to helping, or has tried to help.

What must the helper know about the principal's intentions? It is not enough that the helper encourage or aid the principal in the principal's crime or crimes. In order to be an accomplice in the principal's crime(s), the helper must in addition know what it is that is being helped, and must intend that the acts of encouragement or aid facilitate the principal's criminal venture. In other words, there must be some level of attunement between the parties before blame for the principal's actions can be shared equally by the helper. So, if the helper lends a crow bar to his neighbor unaware that the neighbor intends to use it for a burglary, then the helper is not an accomplice to the burglary, even though he has contributed material aid. Because the aid was provided in ignorance of what use it would be put to, the aid cannot, by itself, make out a case of accomplice liability against the helper. This is precisely the problem the law faces with providers of goods (e.g., retail hunting stores) and services (e.g., lessors of hotel rooms) who naively help along a criminal venture. A helper's contribution simply cannot count as accomplice liability unless the helper knows what the principal is up to.

Even when the helper does know what the principal is up to, there are two considerable problems to our finding the helper to be an accomplice in what the principal ultimately does: (1) the helper may be indifferent to how or even whether the helper's contribution operates on the principal; and (2) the principal may depart "upward" from the common scheme by committing excessive crimes not imagined by the helper, or depart "downward" from the common scheme by raising a complete or partial excuse from liability that may (or may not) be open to the helper.

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