Guilt by Association

The term “guilt by association” refers to the idea that an individual is guilty of a crime simply because of his association with the person who actually committed it. The guilt by association meaning exists, not because of proof, but more because of an individual’s assumption.

An example of guilt by association is the assumption that everyone in a group of teenagers at a party is guilty of underage drinking simply because someone witnesses a few of the group’s members consuming alcohol. To explore this concept, consider the following guilt by association definition.

Definition of Guilt by Association


  1. The idea that an individual is guilty of a crime because he associates with the person who actually committed it.


1525–1535         Medieval Latin (associātiōn)

What is Guilt by Association?

The idea of guilt by association, or the “association fallacy,” is that a person is guilty of a crime for simply associating with the person who committed it. This is because people assume the friend of the accused approves of the behavior, and so he likely engaged in it as well.

For example, guilt by association attaches itself to a kid when a witness sees him with a friend who is spraying graffiti on a building. The witness is going to report to the police that he sees “two kids spraying graffiti,” even if the witness does not see the friend with a can in his hand.

Criminal Law – Accessory to a Crime

Accessory to a crime is a valid charge under criminal law. Typically, an individual is an accessory to a crime in the event of a robbery, murder, or drug crime. Under criminal law are two classifications of offenders:

  • Principals, or those individuals who commit the crime; and
  • Accessories, or individuals who assist principals in some way.

The way an individual normally becomes an accessory to a crime is by taking steps to hide evidence of the crime, or helping the perpetrator in carrying out the crime. Whether the friend had “good” intentions in helping his friend, or whether he claims not to have known what his friend was truly doing, neither of these explanations tends to function as a solid legal defense in the field of criminal law.

Consider the following to be one of the many guilt by association examples a criminal court may need to decide:

Jake tells Terry he needs to pick up something quick from the drug store, so Terry drives him there. Jake comes back out a short time later, gets in the car, and they drive off. Jake tells Terry after they’ve driven for a few miles that he actually robbed the drug store at gunpoint. Terry may now be an accessory to a crime.

If Terry can prove he did not know what Jake’s true intentions were when he dropped him off – and even until several miles down the road – the court may find him innocent. However, the court may then consider why Terry didn’t call the police after the fact to report the crime.

It is easy to see how quickly and easy the actions of an individual’s friend can change the course of his own life forever.

Guilt by Association Debate

The guilt by association debate has raged on for decades in terms of its fallacies (hence the term “association fallacy”) and whether it is truly fair. On one side of the guilt by association debate are those who believe the concept is entirely fair. They argue that people tend to make friends with those who are similar to them and who share similar interests. So, it is in then likely for them to engage in the same bad behaviors.

On the other side of the guilt by association debate, however, are those who believe that people are accountable for their own individual actions. Just because a person is friends with someone does not mean he approves of every little thing his friend does.

However, in either case, Psychology Today advises people to be careful in selecting their friends because guilt by association can follow them for the rest of their lives. If, for instance, a person’s friend ends up in trouble with the law, he too can be associated with that crime, which can affect everything from education to employment.

Honor by Association

Honor by association is exactly what it sounds like: the complete opposite of guilt by association. In the case of honor by association, a person believes that an individual must be reputable because of the company he keeps, or because of the support he receives.

A classic example of honor by association is a celebrity endorsement of a particular product. People who admire the celebrity believe the product is also worthwhile because surely that celebrity would not put his name behind a faulty or dangerous product.

Examples of Guilt by Association

What follows are some more guilt by association examples to help better illustrate the concept.

  • If a person has family members who are racist, then others may assume he is racist as well, because he is a part of that family.
  • A student ditches class so he can hang out with his friends, who meet up on school grounds to smoke marijuana. A teacher catches them, and the entire group gets in trouble for smoking marijuana, even though the first student makes it a point to never
  • Many assume that a criminal defense lawyer is a bad egg because he defends criminals for a living. However, in reality, he is just trying to do his job and has never committed a crime.

Situations wherein people assume that everyone in a group is participating in the same negative activity even if one person in the group is not can be guilt by association examples.

Drugs in a Car – a Guilt by Association Example

An example of guilt by association heard by the U.S. Supreme Court is Maryland v. Pringle (2003). In this case, a police officer stopped a car for speeding, in which Joseph Pringle was a passenger. Upon searching the car, the cop found over $750 in the glove compartment and a stash of cocaine behind the armrest of the back seat. He then arrested Pringle and the car’s two other occupants, despite all three individuals denying ownership of the drugs and money.

Conviction and Appeal

Ultimately, the trial court found Pringle guilty on two charges: possession with intent to distribute cocaine and possession of cocaine. The court sentenced him to 10 years in prison with no chance of parole. Pringle appealed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals; however, the court affirmed his conviction.

He then took his case to the State Court of Appeals, and the court reversed his conviction, holding that simply finding cocaine in a car wherein Pringle was a passenger was not enough to establish probable cause for his arrest and subsequent criminal charges.

U.S. Supreme Court

Pringle’s case made it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately reversed the State Court of Appeals and affirmed Pringle’s conviction. The Court’s reasoning for doing so was that the arresting officer did not violate the Constitution in arresting Pringle. The Court believed the officer had reason to believe the car’s occupants had committed a felony by being in possession of the drugs and money, and that he therefore had probable cause to arrest Pringle.

Said the Court:

“Because the officer had probable cause to arrest Pringle, the arrest did not contravene the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Maryland law authorizes police officers to execute warrantless arrests, inter alia, where the officer has probable cause to believe that a felony has been committed or is being committed in the officer’s presence. Here, it is uncontested that the officer, upon recovering the suspected cocaine, had probable cause to believe a felony had been committed; the question is whether he had probable cause to believe Pringle committed that crime.

The ‘substance of all the definitions of probable cause is a reasonable ground for belief of guilt,’ and that belief must be particularized with respect to the person to be searched or seized. To determine whether an officer had probable cause to make an arrest, a court must examine the events leading up to the arrest, and then decide ‘whether these historical facts, viewed from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer, amount to’ probable cause.

As it is an entirely reasonable inference from the facts here that any or all of the car’s occupants had knowledge of, and exercised dominion and control over, the cocaine, a reasonable officer could conclude that there was probable cause to believe Pringle committed the crime of possession of cocaine, either solely or jointly. Pringle’s attempt to characterize this as a guilt-by-association case is unavailing.”

[Citations omitted.]

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.
  • Parole – The release of a prisoner either temporarily or permanently before he completes his prison sentence, on his promise of engaging in good behavior when he gets out.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to rule in a civil matter.