AskDefine | Define accomplice

Dictionary Definition

accomplice n : a person who joins with another in carrying out some plan (especially an unethical or illegal plan) [syn: confederate]

User Contributed Dictionary



Circa 15th century, from a complice, interpreted as one word, from , from complex (partner), from complicare to complicate.


  1. A cooperator.
    • Success unto our valiant general, And happiness to his accomplices! - Shakespeare, Henry VI Part I, V-ii''
  2. An associate in the commission of a crime; a participator in an offense, whether a principal or an accessory.
    • And thou, the cursed accomplice of his treason. - Johnson
    Note: It is followed by with or of before a person and by in (or sometimes of) before the crime; as, A was an accomplice with B in the murder of C. Dryden uses it with to before a thing.
    • Suspected for accomplice''' to the fire. - Dryden


abettor; accessory; assistant; associate; confederate; coadjutor; ally; promoter. See abettor.


a cooperator
  • Dutch: handlanger
an associate in the commission of a crime

Extensive Definition

At law, an accomplice is a person who actively participates in the commission of a crime, even though they take no part in the actual criminal offence. For example, in a bank robbery, the person who points the gun at the teller and asks for the money is guilty of armed robbery. However, anyone else directly involved in the commission of the crime, such as the lookout or the getaway car driver, is an accomplice, even though in the absence of an underlying offence keeping a lookout or driving a car would not be an offence.
An accomplice differs from an accessory in that an accomplice is present at the actual crime, and could be prosecuted even if the main criminal (the principal) is not charged or convicted. An accessory is generally not present at the actual crime, and may be subject to lesser penalties than an accomplice or principal.
In older sources, an accomplice was often referred to as an abettor. This term is not in active use, having been replaced by accomplice.
At law, an accomplice has the same degree of guilt as the person he or she is assisting, is subject to prosecution for the same crime, and faces the same criminal penalties. As such, the three accomplices to the bank robbery above can also be found guilty of armed robbery even though only one stole the money.
The fairness of the doctrine that the accomplice is as guilty as the primary offender has been discussed many times, particularly in cases of capital crimes. On several occasions, accomplices have been prosecuted for felony murder even though the actual person who committed the murder died at the crime scene or otherwise did not face capital punishment.
One of the most notorious cases of this type was the 1952 case in England involving Derek Bentley, a mentally-challenged man who was in police custody when his sixteen-year-old companion, Christopher Craig, shot and killed a police officer during a botched break-in (News Report Craig was sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure, since as a juvenile offender he could not be sentenced to death (he was released after serving ten years), but Bentley was hanged. The incident was dramatized in the film Let Him Have It, which is what Bentley allegedly said to Craig during the incident, it being unclear whether he meant for Craig to shoot the officer, or to surrender the gun. The hanging of Bentley led to public outrage and the eventual abolition of capital punishment in the United Kingdom.

Aiding and Abetting under U.S. Law

Courts often refer to aiding and abetting as an alternate theory of liability rather than a separate crime. Under 18 U.S.C. § 2, aiding and abetting liability is available in all federal criminal prosecutions; however, the availability and extent of civil aiding and abetting liability varies from statute to statute. Where available, aiding and abetting liability generally requires three elements: 1) an underlying violation by a principal; 2) knowledge of that violation and/or the intent to facilitate the violation; and 3) assistance to the principal in the violation. As indicated by the Supreme Court, “In order to aid and abet another to commit a crime it is necessary that a defendant 'in some sort associate himself with the venture, that he participate in it as in something that he wishes to bring about, that he seek by his action to make it succeed.” Nye & Nissen v. United States, 336 U.S. 613, 618 (1949) quoting Judge Learned Hand in U.S. v. Peoni 100 F.2d 401, 402 (2d. Cir. 1938).
In 1982, the United States Supreme Court held that accomplices may not be executed for the capital crimes of other criminals, if there is no evidence that the accomplice knew or even suspected that the primary wrongdoer might commit murder. In Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782 (1982), the accomplice was sitting in a car outside a house where a robbery was committed, and had no inkling that his partner in crime was going to kill the robbery victim.
Some states, including the state of California, have a system that distinguishes between an accessory, an accomplice, and a principal (or co-principal) in a different way. In this system, the difference between an accessory and an accomplice is not as listed above. An accessory would ONLY be someone who aids and abets the principal (the person who committed the crime OR helped in the planning of the crime) to escape justice after the crime has been committed (there is no more accessory "before" and "after" the fact... what was once "accessory before the fact" is now just "co-principal", and what was once "accessory after the fact" is now just "accessory". An accomplice is NOT a formal legal term in many states... it is "legal slang", and denotes ONLY "an accessory or co-principal that agrees to testify against another principal in a court of law".

Application to "White Collar Crimes"

Since 2001, the Securities and Exchange Commission has filed a number of complaints related to the aiding and abetting of securities fraud. For example, CIBC and Merrill Lynch were separately charged with aiding and abetting Enron’s evasion of record keeping requirements and required financial controls. Settlements, including disgorgement, penalties, and interest reached $80 million in both cases.


  • Guam v. Dela Rosa, 644 F.2d 1257, 1260-61 (9th Cir. 1981) (per curiam) defining an accomplice as “one who could have been indicted for the same offense either as an accessory or principal”

External links

accomplice in Spanish: Cómplice
accomplice in Irish: Comhchoirí
accomplice in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Complice
accomplice in Serbian: Саучесник

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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