Aiding and Abetting

The legal term aiding and abetting refers to a person’s action to help, support, or approve of someone else’s illegal act. Aiding and abetting is a crime in itself, held against those who would somehow assist a criminal – short of physically contributing to the illegal act. In many jurisdictions, aiding and abetting is the same as an “accessory” to the crime. To explore this concept, consider the following aiding and abetting definition.

Definition of Aiding and Abetting


  1. The act of helping, encouraging, or supporting someone in the commission of a crime.


  1. To actively encourage, to assist, or to support the commission of a criminal act.

Origin of Abet

1875-1325       Middle English abette

What is Aiding and Abetting

In order to deter people from helping criminals get away with their crimes, the law makes giving aid a crime in and of itself. A person may be charged with the crime of aiding and abetting, even though he was not present during, or did not physically assist with, the commission of the crime. Someone who aids and abets a crime may provide support by giving advice, financial support, or by taking action not directly related to the crime itself, for the purpose of facilitating its success.

Example of Aiding and Abetting

When Della’s boyfriend Rob, and his friend Steve, begin holding “private” meetings in the couple’s basement, she knows something is up. A few weeks later, Rob comes home in a rush, hauling a couple of heavy bags down the basement steps. Worried, Della follows him down, to see a huge amount of cash in the bags, as Rob worked frantically to stuff it all into a hole in the wall behind the heating unit. Deciding she doesn’t want to know, Della just pushes it out of her mind.

A couple of weeks later, the police come to Della’s door, wanting to talk to her. When they tell her they have evidence that Rob committed a bank robbery recently, she acts shocked, and denies knowing anything about it. The truth is, she has suspected as much the day he brought the cash home, but has been reluctant to say something. Rob has ensured her a $100,000 cut of the money, and she would hate for the authorities to carry it all away.

Throughout the investigation, in this example of aiding and abetting, Della denies any involvement with, or even knowledge of the crime. Della, by her actions (or failure to tell what she knows), is aiding and abetting her boyfriend’s crime.

History of Aiding and Abetting as a Crime

In the United States, the first law dealing with the issue of holding someone responsible for assisting someone in the commission of a crime was passed in 1790. The law made it a crime to aid, counsel, advise, or command someone in the commission of a murder, or of robbery on land or sea, or of piracy at sea. In 1870, the law was expanded to include the commission of any felony.

In 1909, the law was done away with, and replaced with a more modern statute, now found in 18 U.S.C. Section 550. The changes primarily include modernization of language and grammatical style. Specifically, the updated definition under the law reads:

“Whoever … aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures its commission, is punishable as a principal.”

The statute was once again updated in 1948, at which time 18 U.S.C. Section 550 became 18 U.S.C. Section 2(a). This updated law makes it clear that someone who aids and abets the commission of a crime will be punished as though he or she did commit the crime. One more amendment in 1950 added the word “willfully” to the definition, specifying that someone who had intent to aid in the commission or cover-up of the crime will be punished as a “principal.”

Elements of Aiding and Abetting

To convict someone of aiding and abetting a crime, the prosecutor must prove certain elements. In a federal case, those elements include:

  • The accused specifically intended to aid in the commission of the crime, for the purpose of making the endeavor successful;
  • The accused took positive action to aid, or participated in some element of, the commission of the crime, though the level of participation may be relatively small;
  • Someone other than the accused actually committed the underlying crime.

To gain a conviction, a jury must be convinced that the elements of aiding and abetting are present, beyond a reasonable doubt. In truth, once the prosecution establishes that the defendant knew about the crime, or the unlawful purpose of some element, it has made sufficient connection for the jury to convict.

Differences Between Aiding and Abetting, and Accessory

Both aiding and abetting, and acting as an accessory to a crime, are illegal acts. Specific laws regarding these actions vary by jurisdiction, and the definitions overlap in some ways, leading to their interchangeable use. There are differences between aiding and abetting, and accessory, however.

  • Aiding – the giving of assistance or support to someone else in their commission of a crime.
  • Abetting – the encouragement, or motivating someone to commit a crime. This may include rabble-rousing, goading, and instigating someone, or a crowd, to commit an illegal act.
  • Accessory – a person who actually assists in the commission of a crime committed primarily by someone else. In most jurisdictions, the law distinguishes between an accessory after the fact, and an accessory before the fact, lending additional prosecutorial power.

Common Traits Between Aiding and Abetting, and Accessory

Anyone charged with providing assistance to another person (called a “principal”) in their commission of an illegal act is considered to be an “accomplice.” Whichever wording is specified by the laws of the jurisdiction in which the crime is committed, the act of helping someone commit a crime, inducing someone to commit a crime, or helping someone cover-up the fact that he committed a crime, is also a criminal act. To be convicted of this type of crime, however, the prosecution must prove that the accomplice knew that a crime was being, or had been, committed by the principal.

What is Conspiracy

The primary difference between aiding and abetting (or being an accessory to a crime) and a conspiracy is whether or not the crime was actually committed. While the former are charges imposed after the crime has been committed – naming a third party who helped in some way to facilitate or cover up the crime – someone can be charged with conspiracy, even if the crime never happened.

This is not to say that anyone who daydreams up a crime can be charged with conspiracy. If, however, two or more people collaborate on how to commit a specific crime, coming up with plans to carry it out, they have conspired to commit that crime. Should something happen to prevent them from engaging that plan, they still have committed the crime of conspiracy.

For example:

Armand, an executive assistant at a finance firm, knows that his boss keeps certain passwords and login information in a notebook in his desk drawer. He befriends Letti, who he knows has no problem doing things that are morally questionable. Eventually, he mentions to her the lax security on those passwords, which would enable someone familiar with the company’s computer system to access the bank accounts of its wealthy clients.

Soon after, the pair begin engaging in more than idle speculation – actually making plans to obtain the passwords and login information, to steal clients’ money, and to cover their tracks. Armand has no intention of doing the “dirty work,” and so the plan involves Letti as the one to sneak in and take the information.

Another employee overhears Armand and Letti talking over lunch on the patio, and mentions it to management, who calls the police. A quiet investigation ensued, with police interviewing witnesses, and viewing surveillance video of the pair talking frequently. Both Armand and Letti are then taken into custody, and charged with conspiracy to commit the crime – even though the actual crime was never completed.

Aiding and Abetting Example in Murder Charge

In 1990, two members of the East Coast Crips gang in South Central Los Angeles, were talking. One of the men, Daniel Wilkins, was mocking the other, Donald Rose, saying he had not proven himself as a gang member. He called Rose a “buster,” which meant something like a punk. Rose became angry, and Wilkins badgered him into taking a hand gun into a rival gang’s territory.

As Rose headed into an area controlled by two Blood gangs (enemies of the East Coast Crips), a California Highway Patrol officer pulled over a car that was both speeding and driving recklessly. The officer took the driver of the car to jail, leaving the passenger (William Dabbs) at the scene. Apparently unable to drive the car, Dabbs walked to a pay phone to call his cousin for a ride. During the brief conversation, the cousin heard the phone suddenly drop, then he heard a fight, which ended with two gun shots. Dabbs died soon after from his injuries.

A few months later, both Wilkins and Rose were arrested for the crime. While Rose did not confess to the shooting, Wilkins confessed to aiding and abetting the crime, having egged Rose on to go looking for someone to shoot. He told police that Rose had robbed and shot the victim. The state decided to prosecute both men for robbery and murder. Rose – who had done the shooting – was acquitted of the crimes. Wilkins apparently did not know that someone who aids and abets the commission of such a serious crime can be held just as responsible as if he had pulled the trigger himself.

A jury found Wilkins guilty of robbery, first degree murder, and personally using a firearm as a primary contributor to the crime. Wilkins’ attorney appealed the conviction, arguing that a principle known as “collateral estoppel” prevents someone being convicted of aiding and abetting if no one was convicted of committing the actual crime. In other words, because Rose was found not guilty, there essentially was no crime committed by the person Wilkins was accused of helping.

In this example of aiding and abetting prosecution, the appellate court determined that, because the state cannot appeal an acquittal in a criminal matter, it is at a disadvantage. It would not be fair or just for the state to be barred from prosecuting an accomplice to the crime, regardless of what happened to the actual perpetrator of the crime. Federal law, found in 18 U.S.C. Section 2, specifies that anyone who aids or abets another in the commission of a crime can be punished as though he had committed the crime himself. Essentially, this law erases the line between a “principal,” and an “accessory” in a crime.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Intent – A resolve to perform an act for a specific purpose; a resolution to use a particular means to a specific end.
  • Principal – A person who takes a leading part in an act or occurrence.
  • Reasonable Doubt – The standard of proof required in a criminal trial: that no other logical explanation exists, given the facts presented, that the accused committed the crime.

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