Accessory After The Fact (What It Means And How It Works: Overview)

What is Accessory After The Fact?

What are some examples of this crime?

How does it work?

Keep reading as we have gathered exactly the information that you need!

What is accessory after the fact and why is it important!

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What Is Accessory After The Fact

Accessory after the fact refers to a type of crime where the offender helps or assists another person having committed a crime to escape arrest, detention, trial, conviction, or punishment.

It’s quite common to see accessory after the fact cases involving family members, friends, or people related to one another in a certain way.

For example, it may be possible that a friend tries to help another friend hide from law enforcement officers, hide evidence, or even lie to the authorities.

To prove that a crime has been committed, the prosecutor, beyond any reasonable doubt, must prove the following elements:

  • A felony crime was committed by someone 
  • After the felony crime was committed, you helped the person 
  • You helped the person with the intention to help the offender escape detention, arrest, trial, or punishment

For example, in Florida, close family members are exempt from this crime such as a spouse, parent, grandparent, sibling, or other.

However, close family members may still be charged with a crime such as tampering with evidence or possession of stolen property if they helped the felony offender tamper with evidence or hide stolen items.

If you know that someone has committed a crime and they try to have you help them escape the law, you must be mindful of the fact that you can be charged and found guilty of a criminal offense as an “accessory after the fact”.

It is a serious crime so it’s important that you know all about it and how it works.

Accessory After The Fact Definition

According to the Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, accessory after the fact is defined as follows:

An accessory-after-the-fact is someone who assists 1) someone who has committed a crime, 2) after the person has committed the crime, 3) with knowledge that the person committed the crime, and 4) with the intent to help the person avoid arrest or punishment. 
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As you can see from this definition, you have an accessory after the fact when:

  • A person helps another who has committed a crime
  • A person helps another after he or she has committed a crime 
  • Helps someone knowing that he or she has committed a crime 
  • With the intention to help another person escape arrest or legal punishment 

Under 18 U.S. Code § 3, accessory to a crime after the fact is codified as follows:

Whoever, knowing that an offense against the United States has been committed, receives, relieves, comforts or assists the offender in order to hinder or prevent his apprehension, trial or punishment, is an accessory after the fact.
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The facts of the case are important for the prosecutor to distinguish between a person acting as an “accessory after the fact” or as a “coconspirator” to the crime.

If the person is punished as an “accessory” after the fact when he or she harbored, concealed a person, or aided a person who has committed a crime or helped the person avoid arrest.

However, if a person was part of the planning of the crime and there was premeditation, the person may be charged as a coconspirator to the crime and get a sentence equivalent to the principal.

Accessory After The Fact Elements

What are the elements that must be proven to convict someone of an accessory after the fact charge?

To be found guilty of being an accessory after the fact accusation, the prosecutor must prove:

  • That you knew the other person (the principal) had committed a crime (or was charged with a crime or found guilty of a crime)
  • You knew the felon’s identity 
  • You helped the person escape arrest, detention, trial, conviction, or punishment 

Let’s look at each of these elements.

First, the accessory after the fact is a person who had knowledge of the fact that the other person had committed a felony crime.

For example, if Person A shoots another person with a gun and Person B is aware of that and deliberately hides the person’s gun, that can be an act for which criminal charges may be filed.

Second, another aspect that is important to be proven is that the accused must have knowledge of the felon’s identity.

For example, if a person sees another rob a bank and helps the robber escape, it is clear that the accessory knows the identity of the felon.

The third element of this crime is that the accused must have deliberately attempted to help the felon escape the law by lying or hiding the person (or in any other manner). 

Generally, a person who is charged may have done the following things:

  • Destroyed evidence 
  • Hid evidence 
  • Hid the offender
  • Helped the offender
  • Lied to the police 
  • Lied to the prosecutor
  • Lied to law enforcement 

In common law jurisdictions, the law states that you cannot have an “accessory” to a crime with the principal having committed the crime.

However, in some jurisdictions, statutes have changed the common law application by specifically stating that even if the principal is not charged with a crime, the accessory can be charged and even convicted.

Accessory After The Fact Punishment

Under 18 U.S. Code § 3, an accessory after the fact is punished by imprisonment of not more than one-half the maximum term of imprisonment or fined not more than one-half the maximum fine prescribed for the punishment of the principal (or both).

In other words, if the principal receives a prison sentence of 10 years, the accomplice or accessory to the fact will receive 5 years prison.

State laws may punish this type of crime in various ways.

For example, in California, Section 32 of the California Penal Code defines “accessory after the fact” indicating that it’s a person helping another committing a felony escape from arrest, trial, conviction, or punishment.

The accessory after the fact charge in California is considered to be a “wobbler” charge as the prosecutor can either charge it as a felony or a misdemeanor depending on the circumstances.

Accessory After The Fact Example

What are some examples of cases where a person is charged with an accessory after the fact charge?

Typically, to be charged with an “accessory after the fact” crime, the person charged may have:

  • Helped hide another person
  • Helped another person run away from the crime scene
  • Destroyed evidence
  • Mislead the law enforcement officers 
  • While knowing that the other person had committed a crime 

If the accessory did not know that the principal had committed a crime, then there could be no accessory after the fact conviction or sentencing.

For example, a person commits an act of robbery and tells a friend about it by delivering the stolen goods.

To escape the police, the offender asks the friend to hide the stolen goods and lie to the police if they were to ask about him.

In this case, the friend can be exposed to two criminal charges, one for accessory after the fact, and one for possession of stolen goods.

The accessory after the fact charge is because of the fact that the friend was aware that the offender had robbed a store and had stolen goods.

To help the friend escape the law, the accessory not only hid the stolen goods but also lied to the police.

The second accusation is the possession of stolen goods.

Since the friend also hid the stolen goods, the prosecutor is able to charge the person with a second crime for holding on to stolen items.

Accessories After The Fact Takeaways 

There you have it folks!

What does accessory after the fact mean?

How can you be charged with an after the fact accessory crime?

An accessory after the fact is a person who is charged with a crime for having helped a felon escape arrest, run away from police, or legal punishment.

The accessory charge is not the same as an accomplice to a crime but is handled separately from the principal’s crime.

Typically, an accessory-after-the-fact is a person who harbors, protects, or assists another person who has already committed a crime (or was charged with a crime).

In other words, an “accessory” is a person who aids another in the commission of a crime and who can be charged with an accessory after the fact.

The person who is being helped is the “principal” whereas the person helping the other is the “accessory”.

Although the laws in each jurisdiction can vary, you can expect the accessory after the fact crime have the following elements:

  • The defendant aided the felon (principal) to a crime
  • The defendant was aware or knew that the principal had committed a crime
  • The defendant aided the principal avoid and escape detention, arrest, trial, or punishment 

In common law, for a person to be charged with an accessory crime after the fact, the principal must be charged with a crime as well.

However, you’ll need to be careful about the specific criminal statutes applicable in your state as the law may specifically allow for the accessory to be charged and convicted without the principal being criminally charged.

Depending on your jurisdiction, the punishments can vary.

For example, in Massachusetts, a person can get a prison sentence, fine, or both.

The imprisonment can go up to seven years, jail up to two and half years, or a fine up to $1,000 depending on the nature of the crime.

Let’s look at a summary of our findings.

Define Accessory After The Fact

  • Accessory after the fact is crime where a person, knowingly, helps a felon escape the law, detention, punishment, or trial after having committed a crime
  • An “accessory” is a person who does not participate in the actual commission of the crime by the offender but helps the offender escape authorities, tamper evidence, lie, harbor or assist the person to run away from the authorities 
  • The “principal” is the person who commits a felony and is helped by the accessory in some ways after having committed the crime 
  • The prosecutor must be able to prove that you knew that the offender had committed a crime, you knowingly helped the person, and your intention was to help the offender escape arrest, detention, trial, or punishment by law 
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