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Accomplice liability: I was just a lookout – what’s this Murder charge?

November 8, 2011

2. Law, 4. Arrest

Accomplice liability:  I was just a lookout – what’s this Murder charge?

Your two buddies are going to break into a warehouse that holds untold riches.  You’re going to sit across the street with cell phone in hand.  Another buddy is going to be on top of a building behind the warehouse, also with cell phone in hand.  Your jobs are to text your friends inside if cops show up.  You guys got this thing figured out right good.

Your boys enter.  You’re watching YouTube and looking around.  A second-story office light goes on.  Some guy walks by the window.  You text, “guy 2d floor front.”  The light goes out and you trace his movements for a little bit as hallway lights go on then off.  “moving. dunno where,” you text.

Then you hear it.  A gunshot muffled by the building, but clearly a gunshot.  You take off.  You think you hear another gunshot or two as you run, but you’re not sure.  Cue theme song for Law & Order.

The owner of the warehouse took the first shot in the chest.  One of your buddies took two in the stomach.  Your other buddy took off.  It took the cops less time than it takes to make a pot of coffee to check your dead buddy’s cell phone, see your texts, trace it to you, and show up at your mom’s house.

And – sucks for you – the owner bled out.  Died.

Let’s look at the criminal landscape.  Your second buddy inside the warehouse is picked up – cameras and a little police footwork.  Your buddy behind the warehouse is on the street.  Charges on the table begin with Burglary graded as an F1 (even though the warehouse was not furnished for overnight accommodation, there was a person present – if not, it’d be an F2).  How’s the homicide going to be handled?  Murder 2 – Felony-Murder Rule.

Now we have the players.  Your buddy that went inside committed Burglary.  Can’t argue that, right?  He entered the premises of another with the intent to commit a crime therein.  Slam dunk.  Now it gets interesting.  He was there when the homicide happened.  He didn’t pull the trigger, but he was there – standing right next to your now-dead friend.  The death happened in the course of an inherently violent felony.  The mens rea transfers to the homicide.  He’s down for Murder 2.

But then we have you.  You never entered the building.  You didn’t even know your buddy was packing.  You should just get, um, something, but nothing big, right?  It is to laugh.

You’re toast.

You actively participated in the commission of the crime.  Your boys would not have gone in without lookouts.  That’d be dumb.  The commission of the crime actively needed you.  You were present at the scene of the crime.  You see that?  Now, maybe a long time ago we’d look at your lesser role and charge/sentence you accordingly, but those days are so far gone nobody remembers them or why we’d do anything different than we do now.

An Accomplice is equally guilty as the Principal.  The Principal entered the building; the Accomplice did not.  The Principal pulled the trigger; the Accomplice did not.  Doesn’t matter.  Toast.

Toast on Burglary.  Toast on Murder 2.

Here’s a checklist for you:

  • A crime was committed by another person
  • The defendant “aided, counseled, commanded or encouraged” the other person in the commission of the criminal offense.
  • The defendant acted for the purpose of helping or encouraging the other person to commit the crime
  • The defendant acted with at least the same mental state required for the commission of the crime.

But why Murder 2?  Because shooting someone in the course of a Burglary is reasonably foreseeable.

What’s not reasonably foreseeable?  Assume some guy is out of town.  You and your buddy decide to boost the bitchin’ car in his barn.  No one’s around so you guys wander the barn.  Your buddy’s all “What’s that?”  You look where he’s looking.  “It’s a sheep.”  Your buddy then, um, well, you know – I ain’t gonna spell it out.  You’re like, “Dude, that is wrong on so many levels.  I’m outta here.”  By the time he’s deep into the subject, you’re gone with the boosted car.  He’ll drive your car back.  You can expect both of you to be charged with Theft, but only he’ll wear the Bestiality charge.  You better hope so.  It could weigh heavily on the quality of your prison time.

Who can be involved but not be an Accomplice?  An Accessory.  An Accessory had to help in some way – the Principals borrowed your gun, for example.  You had to know the crime was going to be committed.  You had to have helped in some material manner.  An Accessory Before the Fact – before the crime was committed – can be held equally liable as if they were present at the time of the crime.  An Accessory After the Fact – you didn’t know anything about the crime, but then helped them get rid of evidence afterward – is generally not hit as hard.

Keep in mind that all of these discussions are general.  Laws are different state to state, and every case is decided upon the specific facts of that case.  You get charged, get an attorney.

The best thing to do when you get anywhere near a crime is to get as far away as possible.  And the closer you are – even if you weren’t directly involved – may require you to inform the police of the planned crime in order to wash yourself of liability.

There’s an old saying – The longer you hang out at a barber shop, the more likely you are to get your hair cut.  Stay away from criminals, stay away from crime, and life will be less complicated.

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About Clyde

Clyde is the lead attorney in the firm. Licensed to practice in 1993, he's also taught Constitutional and Criminal Law for several years at a private university, primarily at the Master's level.

View all posts by Clyde


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