If you get charged with the offense of accomplice or as an accessory to murder in California, you will be confused about what the charges pertain to. Few people understand that a criminal accessory isn’t the same offense as a criminal accomplice. Both relate to helping the primary offender perpetrate their crime, but in different ways.
Differentiating the two legal terms could be the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony, probation, or mandatory jail sentence. So, here’s a look at the legal terms, what they mean, and what to do if you or a loved one gets accused.
What is an Accessory?
California Penal Code 31 PC defines an accessory as any individual who assists helps the principal offender to commit a crime, including murder. Typically, help is provided before the crime gets committed. Accessories are never present at the scene of a crime, and therefore, do not assist when the crime is committed. Furthermore, they do not conspire to commit the crime or abet and aid the principal offender to further the crime.
If you learn about a potential murder but fail to notify the relevant authorities or proceed to assist the offender, you’ll be considered an accessory to the crime. Likewise, if you learn of murder after its commission and help the suspect to evade detection, hide or destroy evidence, you’ll be considered as an accessory to the murder.
How Serious is an Accessory to Murder Charge in California?
Accessory to murder is a criminal felony in California. It’s sometimes referred to as abetting or aiding murder, which attests to the seriousness of the offense. On the flip side, you cannot be charged as an accessory to murder if you unintentionally helped the principal offender before or after committing the crime. Also, you cannot be convicted of accessory to murder if you acted under duress.
If you get convicted, penalties can vary depending on how the murder was planned and executed. In abetting and aiding cases, defendants often face similar charges as the principal offender. Thus, an abettor or aider can face life imprisonment without parole.
In California, an accessory who learns about a murder after it’s committed is considered a “wobbler.” Hence, their offense can be treated as either a felony or misdemeanor depending on the facts surrounding the case. The defender’s criminal history also holds sway. Nonetheless, here are two key points to keep in mind:
- As a misdemeanor charge, accessory after the fact is punishable by a jail term of up to one year in county jail, and a fine of up to $5,000.
- As a felony charge, accessory after the fact is punishable by a maximum jail term of three years in state prison and a maximum fine of $5,000
Defenses Against Accessory to Murder Charges
Any person facing accessory to murder allegations has the right to legal defense. Ideally, an effective defense should poke holes into the charges. It’s best to hire an aggressive criminal defense lawyer to cast reasonable doubt on the charges brought against you.
An experienced attorney will know which defense works best in your case. As with other crimes, there are several defenses against this charge. Lawyers often draw upon different legal strategies and options to challenge accessory to murder allegations. This may include showing that:
- The defendant didn’t know that the person they helped intended to commit murder or had committed murder
- The accused acted under duress
- No murder took place in the first place
- The principal offender did not commit murder
Who is an Accomplice to Murder?
Accomplices (also known as abettors or aiders) are individuals directly connected to the crime. If you face accomplice to murder charges, you stand accused of facilitating or encouraging the principal offender to commit the crime. For instance, you may facilitate a murder by providing the primary offender with information regarding the victim’s whereabouts while knowing that the offender intends to harm the victim.
The accomplice to murder can be the individual who loans or hires the murder weapon to the offender. If you turn off the alarm systems at the premises where you knew the victim might get murdered, you will be considered an accomplice to murder. However, remember that complicity and conspiracy are two different terms.
Complicity entails assisting the offender in the murder act. On the flip side, conspiracy may involve participating in the planning rather than the actual murder. Once you learn about the murder plan and agree with it without helping the offender execute the offense, you will be part of the murder conspiracy. Other examples of abetting and aiding a murder include:
- Keeping the getaway car’s engine running
- Driving the getaway car
- Serving as a lookout while the primary offender commits murder
How Serious is an Accomplice to Murder Charge in California?
In California, conspiracy is considered a separate offense from the actual crime the conspirators committed. So, if the prosecution proves there was an agreement and intent to commit a murder, the accused will undoubtedly be found guilty of contriving to commit murder.
California’s Penal Code 31 PC makes it illegal to facilitate, aid, or encourage the commission of criminal acts, including murder. So, if you’re found guilty of conspiring to commit murder, you face the same punishment as the principal offender. Aiding and abetting isn’t a separate crime but a legal principle outlined in the California Penal Code.
The state could prosecute everyone who is “in on” the crime even if they did not perpetrate or participate in the crime directly. An abettor or aider faces similar charges under the California Penal Code as the primary perpetrator. Hence, if convicted, they face life in prison just like the individual who committed the actual killing.
Defenses Against Accomplice to Murder Charges
If you are accused of aiding or abetting a murder, a criminal defense lawyer can present several defenses on your behalf. These include:
You Did Not Participate in the Crime
Your attorney can argue that you are not guilty of abetting or aiding the commission of a murder. For instance, if you were a passenger in a car driven by friends on a murder mission, didn’t know about their plans, and fled when they got arrested you can be left off the hook. In this case, a criminal defense lawyer will prove you did not intentionally participate in the crime.
You Withdrew from Participating in the Crime
If you were part of the murder conspiracy but withdrew from participation by notifying other people of your intention and did everything to prevent the plot from proceeding, you can fight your abetting and aiding charges. Your lawyer will argue that you effectively communicated your desire to withdraw from the plot and tried to prevent its commission. In this case, you’re likely to get acquitted of the charges.
Sometimes, there’s no need for physical proof that you abetted or aided the principal offender in the commission of murder. Thus, it’s easy to get falsely accused of doing so as it happens to many people. This often happens when someone tries to divert their criminal culpability by naming you as part of the conspiracy. With a lawyer by your side, the facts of the case will be investigated thoroughly so that the truth comes to light.
You Had No Duty to Act
If you knew of a plot to commit a crime but did nothing to prevent it from happening, you are not guilty of being an abettor or aider. However, Penal Code 31 stipulates that you’ll be guilty of the allegations if you had a legal duty to act.
Legal duties tend to be few and far between because they are conferred upon individuals by law. Besides, they do not come into play that often. Thus, knowing that a crime is about to be committed and doing nothing about it isn’t enough to have you convicted as an abettor or aider.
You Facilitated the Crime After It Happened
It’s possible to facilitate a murder plot after it’s over. In this case, you won’t get charged as an accomplice but as an accessory to murder. Under PC 31, accessories are regarded as obstructers of justice who did everything possible to help the offender to evade arrest/punishment. As a result, they often face a lesser punishment than aiders and abettors.
Getting the Help You Deserve
Facing allegations of accessory or accomplice to murder is one of the most challenging things anyone can experience. The prospect of spending the rest of your life behind bars or paying hefty fines is real. Depending on your role in the crime, you can be charged with anything from a simple misdemeanor to a Class A Felony.
At Seyb Law Group, we’re committed to helping you secure the best judgment. Our aggressive criminal trial lawyers have a proven track record of giving clients a fighting chance and winning the most challenging cases. We’re here to help you navigate this stressful period of your life, so schedule a free case evaluation today or visit our offices in Tustin, Orange County, to get started.