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Aiding and Abetting a Federal Crime - 18 U.S. Code § 2

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Feb 21, 2024

In the eyes of federal law, if you aid and abet someone in the commission of a federal crime, you are just as guilty and just as subject to punishment as if you had committed the crime yourself. Under Title 18 U.S. Code Section 2, anyone who aids or abets a federal crime is punishable as a "principal" (i.e., someone who committed the crime).

Aid and abet means assisting somebody in committing or encouraging them to commit a crime.  Generally, an aider and abettor are criminally liable to the same extent as the person committing the crime.

Aiding and Abetting a Federal Crime - 18 U.S. Code § 2
Aiding and abetting someone to commit a crime means you can face penalties as if you did the crime.

In other words, someone aids and abets the commission of a crime when they, acting with knowledge of the unlawful purpose of the perpetrator and the intent or purpose of committing, encouraging, or facilitating the commission of the federal offense by act or advice aids, promotes, encourages, or instigates the commission of the crime.

Title 18, United States Code, Section 2, makes it a federal offense to aid or abet the commission of another crime and says the following: 

(a) Whoever commits an offense against the United States or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces, or procures its commission is punishable as a principal.

(b) Whoever willfully causes an act to be done which, if directly performed by him or another, would be an offense against the United States, is punishable as a principal.

To convict you of violating 18 U.S.C. 2, the federal prosecutor must prove that you associated with the criminal endeavor, knowingly participated, and sought by your own action to make the endeavor successful

This law is often called the accomplice statute because it allows people to be prosecuted as a principal, even if they did not perform every act of the crime.  For indictment of a section 2 charge, a separate crime that the person helped carry out must exist.

Aiding and Abetting - Explained

As noted, aiding and abetting refers to assisting, facilitating, or encouraging the commission of a crime. Under federal law, there is no significant difference between the person who physically commits the crime (the principal) and those who assist (the accomplices). 

To be considered aiding and abetting, an individual does not need to be present at the crime scene; they simply must have knowingly contributed to the crime's commission in some significant way.

This broad definition encompasses a range of activities, from planning the crime to providing the tools to commit it or helping the principal offender avoid capture after the fact. 

The critical element is intent: the accomplice must have intended to facilitate the crime and taken some action towards its realization. This includes actions taken before, during, or after the commission of the crime.

The government must prove that a principal committed a criminal act and that the person who is the subject of the indictment aided and abetted in the commission of that criminal offense.

Section 2(a) focuses on the person who aids and abets in the carrying out crime. Section (b) focuses on the person who causes another to commit a crime, independent of the guilt or innocence of the person they caused to commit the crime.

Unpacking 18 U.S. Code 2 - Principals

18 U.S. Code 2 is sometimes called the federal aiding and abetting statute because prosecutors primarily use it to subject an accessory to a crime to the same penalties as the person(s) who committed it. The law encompasses two crucial aspects:

  1. Anyone who aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces, or procures the commission of an offense against the United States is punishable as a principal.
  2. Anyone who willfully causes a federal crime to be committed is punishable as a principle, even if they did not directly perform the crime. 

This law effectively serves two purposes:

  • Deterrence: By making accessories to the crime as culpable as the perpetrators, the law may dissuade individuals by assisting in committing a crime.
  • Cooperation: When someone knows they could be charged with the same crime, they are less likely to aid and abet and more likely to cooperate with authorities, making it easier to prosecute crimes.

It should also be noted that although a principal is usually charged, you can be convicted for aiding and abetting, irrespective of whether the principal is convicted. In other words, if prosecutors can prove you helped with the crime, you can still be convicted of the crime even if the jury acquits the perpetrator.

What are the Requirements for a Conviction?

To procure a conviction under the aiding and abetting statute, the prosecution must prove certain elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • A Crime Was Committed: First and foremost, it must be proven that a crime has occurred (usually, the perpetrator is identified and charged).
  • You Knew About the Crime: The prosecutors must prove that you were aware of the crime and knew your actions would assist in committing it.
  • You Provided Intentional Aid: It must be shown that you intentionally aided, counseled, commanded, induced, or procured the person committing the crime. In other words, you knowingly provided some form of assistance or support. This assistance can be in the form of advice, financial support, physical involvement, or any action that could be construed as encouraging or aiding the crime.
  • You Acted with Criminal Intent: The prosecution needs to establish that you acted with a specific intent to facilitate the commission of a crime. You participated willingly, not accidentally or unknowingly.

What are the Penalties for Aiding and Abetting?

There is no separate criminal charge for aiding and abetting; accessories face the same charges as the principals, and the punishment for aiding and abetting a federal crime may be as severe as that for actually committing the crime.

Thus, if you are accused of aiding and abetting, you may face the same fines, imprisonment terms, or other sanctions that would apply to the person who physically committed the crime.

What are the Possible Defenses Against Aiding and Abetting Charges?

If charged with aiding and abetting, a skilled federal criminal defense attorney can implement one or more key defense strategies, including: 

  • Lack of Knowledge: This defense could be applicable if you can demonstrate that you didn't know a crime was being committed.
  • No Intentional Assistance: Your actions to assist the crime were unintentional or accidental.
  • Withdrawal: If you withdrew your support or attempted to prevent the crime before it occurred, you might use this as a defense. However, the requirements for a successful withdrawal defense can be complex and often require proof that you communicated your withdrawal to the principal and tried to neutralize the effects of your previous assistance.

Additionally, if you are charged with aiding and abetting, a decision to cooperate with federal prosecutors in convicting the principal can often mitigate the penalties you may face, often in the form of a plea bargain. Contact our law firm for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, California.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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