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 - What Crimes Can Be Helped?

helping moon abbott race

Although the abrogation of the distinction between principals and helpers has equalized their punishments, the abrogation will never be able to eliminate altogether the distinction between helping and doing when it comes to identifying whether certain actors are liable at all for whatever it is that has happened. For example, suppose an antiprostitution law that criminalizes "selling sex." Obviously the prostitute is the seller, but what has the "John" or buyer of sex done? Sold sex? Helped the prostitute sell sex? Nothing criminal at all?

This problematical aspect of the law of accomplice liability comes up frequently in the context of two-party cases requiring the participation of two persons as opposed to the run-of-the-mill offense that requires a perpetrator and a victim. Dangerous games such as Russian roulette or drag racing are examples of such two-or-more-party offenses where the law of accomplices has an uncertain role to play. It is not all that unusual for courts to say that lucky survivors of dangerous games have somehow killed the unlucky players who have died from shooting themselves in the head or by driving their cars off the road into ditches or oncoming traffic.

For example, in People v. Abbott & Moon, 84 A.D.2d 11 (N.Y. App. Div. 1981), Moon was drag racing with Abbott, who killed Patricia Hammond and her two passengers, who had entered the intersection through which Moon was racing at 80–85 and Abbott at over 90 miles per hour at the time of the wreck. Although Moon was driving worse than unsafely, he was lucky enough to avoid ramming into anyone. While Abbott's liability for the three deaths was obvious, Moon's conviction of criminally negligent homicide and reckless driving also was upheld on appeal. The court explained that

[w]hile Moon did not personally control Abbott's vehicle which struck the three victims, it could reasonably be found that he "intentionally" aided Abbott in the unlawful use of the vehicle by participating in a high-speed race, weaving in and out of traffic, and thus shared Abbott's culpability. . . . Moon associated himself with the high-speed race on a busy highway and took part in it for nearly two minutes over a distance in excess of one mile. Actually his conduct made the race possible. He accepted Abbott's challenge and shared in the venture. Without Moon's aid Abbott could not have engaged in the high-speed race which culminated in the tragedy. (p. 15)

For this reading of complicity the New York appellate court cited criminal-law expert Wayne LaFave, who has noted that such a view "has much to recommend it" (LaFave and Scott, p. 673).

Although calling Moon an accomplice in the fatalities that arose out of his excessive risk-taking has an elemental appeal (he was, after all, a wrongdoer), it is analytically impossible. Consider again the passage quoted above in which the court observed: "Actually his [Moon's] conduct made the race possible." Indeed it did, and this is precisely why each racer is analytically precluded from helping the race. Help can be withheld, or it wouldn't be helping at all. In other words, because the relation of helping (unlike doing or perpetrating) to the ultimate harm is synthetic or empirical, not analytic or true by definition, the actions of helping and doing are distinct and should be so treated. Thus if the crime analytically, elementally, or definitionally requires two or more parties, then the required parties cannot, merely by participating, possibly "help" an activity to which they are by definition essential. Certainly a buyer does not help a seller in an exchange transaction by paying for goods any more than an unmarried person helps a bigamist by marrying him or her, a betrothed couple help each other get married by marrying, or someone helps someone else kiss by simply kissing them.

Here we are not talking simply about cases of "joint principality," under which two parties divide the elements of an offense; for example, two parties rob when one commits the assault (the frightening of the person) and the other the larceny (the taking of the property). Since both the force or threat of force and the taking of the property are analytically, elementally, or definitionally necessary to any robbery, neither party is helping robbery; both are committing it. Oppositely, where the help of one party is necessary only as an empirical or synthetic matter—that is, where the helper does not fulfill a statutory definition of crime or one of its elements, but his actions happen to be necessary for the crime on these facts, then he is helping and not doing, no matter how he may characterize his own actions. For example, that a getaway driver may be necessary for a successful robbery must be observed to be known; getaway drivers are not analytically or definitionally necessary to robbery, which occurs whether or not the perpetrators have a car. Consequently, getaway drivers are helpers, not principals or joint principals, regardless of how they may characterize their actions.

Despite considerable confusion in court opinions—see Commonwealth v. Atencio, 189 N.E.2d 627, 630 (Sup. Jud. Ct. of Mass. 1963)—and academic commentary—see Fletcher, pp. 654–655—multiparty game cases, like exchange transactions, do not instantiate helping by one whose participation is analytically a necessary condition of the crime itself. This is not to say that drag racing and Russian roulette foreclose altogether the doctrine of accomplice liability. Spectators cheering on a drag race could be liable for helping the homicide. Well-known (and still controversial) decisions like Wilcox v. Jeffrey, 1 All E.R. 464 (King's Bench Division 1951), (where a magazine writer, for the purpose of writing about the performance, "helped" Coleman Hawkins play jazz illegally in the United Kingdom) have so held. Cheering spectators are helping drag racing (as Natalie Wood so enthusiastically did in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause) and thus are liable as accomplices in the unlucky racer's demise. But a lucky drag racer who avoids disaster—who neither bumps, cuts off, nor swerves into another racer, driver, or pedestrian—"helps" nothing.

Although American law insists on treating helpers and doers identically, the cheering spectators should have an excuse, albeit a partial one: they were merely helping. Not only is the lucky survivor helping nothing, but neither is he jointly principal in the killing, given that the crime with which such defendants are customarily charged—manslaughter—has two elements: (1) excessive risk-taking and (2) causing death. Manslaughter is not, analytically, a two-or-more-party offense; nor is it divided into one (one steers, the other accelerates?) as obscene phone calling could be were one person to dial and the other to speak obscenely. Moon was charged with manslaughter, not with drag racing. To use the necessary participation as a means of describing the role as that of helping the unlucky player's actions papers over the grammatical, even moral, distinction between helping and doing.

Accomplices - Bibliography [next] [back] Accomplices - The Principal's Departures From The Common Scheme

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