The company you keep can matter a great deal when it comes to criminal charges. Whether the crime in question involved a bar fight or a massive investment fraud scheme, the law can hold you responsible for something you did not do yourself.
Known as accomplice or accessorial liability, this principle holds that participating in a crime by encouraging or otherwise aiding the perpetrator is legally the same as committing the crime with your own hands. This means the accomplice gets slapped with the exact same charges as the perpetrator.
One common act of aid that often results in liability is giving the perpetrator access to premises or materials he or she needs to commit the crime. For example, an investment manager may know that a particular person wants access to confidential information to commit fraud. The manager leaves his or her computer unlocked in the presence of this person with the confidential materials prominently displayed on the screen. This scenario makes it likely that both the fraudster and the manager will face the same charges.
Another typical scenario occurs when one person assaults someone and another person does not take any physical action but cheers on the assailant or taunts the victim. Both of these people may be charged with assault, even though only one of them actually hit the victim.
The role of intent
Intent is an important component of accomplice charges. Prosecutors must show the accomplice wanted the crime to happen and this desire was the reason for the help or moral support. One part of making a case here is showing the alleged accomplice knew what the criminal was up to. In the case of an assault, this is easy to show because it happened right in front of the accomplice. However, if the investment manager discussed above had no idea this person was contemplating fraud and merely neglected to lock the computer before stepping out briefly, prosecutors would have a much harder time showing accomplice liability.
Especially in complicated white-collar cases, state and federal prosecutors may try to use accomplice liability to sweep up as many potential suspects as possible. Whether a court will buy their argument can depend heavily upon the facts involved. Many important issues in such cases are difficult to prove one way or the other, including the alleged accomplice's intent or knowledge of someone else's intent.
If you become aware you or your company is under criminal investigation, be sure to retain your own attorney as soon as possible. Your legal counsel can assess your potential exposure and chart a course for the most advantageous course of action.