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An accessory after the fact is often contrasted with an accessory before the fact. While an accessory after the fact helps a criminal after the person completes a crime, an accessory before the fact helps the criminal either before or during the commission of the offense.
1. What is the legal definition of an “accessory after the fact”?
The criminal laws of most states say that you are an accessory after the fact if you help a principal offender after the person commits a crime.
In particular, a prosecutor usually has to prove the following to successfully convict you of the criminal offense:
you knew that a person committed a criminal act, and
you knowingly helped the person in some way escape arrest, trial, conviction, or sentencing after the commission of the crime.1
Note that some states say that you will only face a charge of accessory after the fact if a main offender’s underlying crime was a felony.2 To say this another way, only the commission of a felony by a principal felon can trigger the crime.
Other states say that any crime, either a misdemeanor or a felony, can trigger the offense.3
Consider, as an example, the scenario where you have a family member or loved one that commits misdemeanor DUI. If you help the person escape from the police, you will only face accessory after the fact charges in those states that say any crime will trigger the offense. You will not face charges in states requiring a felony because DUI is usually a misdemeanor.
2. Is accessory after the fact the same as obstruction of justice?
No. The term obstruction of justice means to obstruct either:
those who seek justice in a court (for example, a judge), or
those who have duties or powers of administering justice (for example, a police officer).
While accessory after the fact focuses on a person helping a criminal avoid punishment, obstructing justice focuses on a person getting in the way of police involvement or the judicial process.
Note that not all states have a specific law on the obstruction of justice. In those that do not, the states do have a number of laws that fall under the rubric of “obstruction of justice.” Some of these include:
Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition – “Accessory.”
About the Author
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.