Criminal Law

What’s the Difference Between Aiding and Abetting and Being an Accessory?

By Jessica Gillespie, Legal Researcher and Editor
Learn about aiding and abetting, and being an accessory before and after the fact.

“Aider and abettor” and “accessory” are common terms used to refer to those who do something to help someone else commit a crime.

Definitions differ by state, but aiding and abetting generally means:

  • knowing that another person is planning to commit a crime
  • intending to encourage or assist the perpetrator commit the offense, and
  • doing something to help carry out the crime.

As with aiding and abetting, definitions of an accessory differ a bit by jurisdiction. Typically, though, in order to be convicted of acting as an accessory, a person must:

  • know that someone is going to commit or has committed a crime
  • intend to help the perpetrator commit the crime
  • do or say something to help the perpetrator, either before or after the perpetrator completes the criminal act, and
  • not be physically present at the scene of the crime.

Many states’ laws distinguish between “accessories before the fact” and “accessories after the fact.” Some states have only the crime of being an accessory after the fact and consider accessories before the fact to be aiders and abettors.

An example of aiding and abetting is acting as a lookout while another person robs a bank. An example of being an accessory after the fact is helping someone who robbed a bank hide and avoid arrest.

Accessories before the fact, much like aiders and abettors, are often charged and punished as if they had actually committed the offense. In other words, the principal and the helper can be prosecuted, convicted, and punished in the same way.

Accessories after the fact typically face less serious charges and receive lighter penalties than the perpetrator.

For more information on the laws that apply to aiders and abettors and accessories in your state, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney.

Go to the main crime definitions FAQ page.

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