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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

Accomplice liability rests on the premise that someone whom the law interchangeably calls an accomplice, accessory, aider and abettor, secondary party, or helper in the crime or crimes of his perpetrator, doer, or principal is derivatively liable for whatever crime or crimes the principal commits. Punishment for accomplice liability is shared equally among principals and their helpers. Proof of the helper's liability is heavily mediated by the actions of the principal. If the principal commits a crime, the equal blame goes to the helper as well, provided that the crime that occurs is one the helper knew about and whose success the helper intended when he provided his assistance.

Accomplice liability's legitimacy rests on its demand that the helper's contribution be significant enough to justify his punishment, but not so significant, dominant, or manipulative as to wipe out altogether the responsibility of the principal. Someone who helps or tries to help someone else commit a crime exerts somewhere from no, to some, to too much constraint on his principal's autonomy. Too much influence exerted by the accomplice does not produce a case of accomplice liability; rather, it produces a case of principal liability for the overreaching helper in his agent's (or would-be principal's) "innocent" wrongdoing. No influence, or perhaps more accurately, no attempt to influence or support the principal, does not produce a case of accomplice liability because the helper has not done enough to make him sufficiently caught-up or "causally" related to the principal's crime. Neither is there a case of accomplice liability if the helper and the principal do not put themselves to the same task, either because the helper does not really care whether the principal succeeds in or even attempts a crime, or because the principal commits a crime or crimes that depart from, or are in excess of, the parties' common scheme. Cases falling in between those cases where the helper does either too much or too little are what one could call "pure" or "core" cases of accomplice liability in which the helper: (1) exerts some (but not too much) influence on the principal; (2) intends that the principal succeed in the jointly intended criminal act; and (3) the principal does in fact at least generally perform as the helper expects him to.

DANIEL B. YEAGER

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law