What's the difference between aiding and abetting?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Mar 17, 2020 | 0 Comments

man driving a getaway car
Anyone who intentionally helps someone else commit a crime is aiding them.

Aiding and abetting are similar legal concepts but have slightly different meanings. Aiding a crime means helping someone else commit a crime. Abetting means to encourage or incite a criminal act, but does not necessarily entail helping or facilitating its execution.

Both aiding and abetting are crimes and forms of accomplice liability. A conviction usually comes with the same penalties as the underlying offense.

While the crime is often referred to as “aiding and abetting,” either one suffices. You can be liable if you aid a criminal activity, or if you abet in it.1

What does it mean to aid a crime?

Anyone who intentionally helps someone else commit a crime is aiding them.

The crime has to actually be committed. The assistance has to actually help in the commission of the offense.2

To be liable for aiding a crime, you have to:

  • know that the person you are helping is trying to commit a crime, and
  • voluntarily act in a way that helps them commit it.3

Physical presence at the scene of the crime is not required. You can be liable for aiding a criminal offense if you were not there when it happened.4 However, it is treated as a factor in whether you were aiding in the offense.5

Example: Alan asks Bob for the floor plan of a bank's vault so they can rob it. Bob gives it to him, but does not participate in the robbery. He stays at home, instead.

What is abetting?

Abetting a crime means encouraging or supporting it. That support can be active, in the form of instigation. It can also be passive. If you know the offense is happening and are present for its commission, you can be liable for abetting.6 By knowing it is happening and doing nothing, it can support the offense.

Some states use other words in place of, or in addition to, “abet.” Some of these words include:

  • encourage,
  • advise,
  • counsel, or
  • induce.7

Abetting still requires a shared intent to commit a crime with the perpetrator.

Example: Zach hires Alan to rob the bank. Alan then gets his team together and they conduct the robbery.

Example: Paul was in a car accident. He knows that his girlfriend is forging documents for his insurance claim. He goes along with it, anyway.8

How are they different and how are they similar?

There are 2 nuanced differences between aiding and abetting a crime:

  1. aiding a crime requires an act of assistance, while abetting does not, and
  2. unlike for abetting, there has to be evidence that the aid helped in the crime's commission.

However, there are more similarities shared by aiding and abetting. These include:

  • the crime has to be committed by someone,
  • the aiding or abetting happens before the crime is committed,
  • liability for aiding or abetting requires intent for the crime to happen,
  • anyone aiding or abetting has to know that the perpetrator intends to commit the crime, and
  • physical presence at the scene of a crime is a factor for aiding or abetting, but is not necessary for liability.

What is accomplice liability?

Both aiding and abetting are examples of accomplice liability.

This is liability for a crime that was committed by someone else. Under accomplice liability, you can be punished for a crime that someone else committed.

Examples of accomplice liability include:

The person who actually commits the crime is the principal. His or her helpers – including those who aid or abet in the crime – are accomplices. Anyone who helps after the crime is complete is an accessory after the fact.

What are the penalties of aiding or abetting a crime?

The penalties of aiding or abetting a crime depend on the crime, itself.

Most states use the same penalties for aiding and abetting as for the crime. These states treat accomplices the same as the principal of a crime. California is one of these states.9

Legal References:

  1. People v. Campbell, 25 Cal.App.4th 402 (1994).

  2. California Criminal Jury Instructions (CALCRIM) 401.

  3. People v. Beeman, 674 P.2d 1318 (1984).

  4. People v. Sarkis, 222 Cal.App.3d 23 (1990).

  5. People v. Singleton, 196 Cal.App.3d 488 (1987).

  6. People v. Campbell, Supra.

  7. See e.g., California Penal Code 31 PC.

  8. People v. Booth, 48 Cal.App.4th 1247 (1996).

  9. California Penal Code 31 PC.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

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, Court TV, 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.


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