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What Is the Difference Between an Accomplice and an Accessory?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Mar 11, 2024

In California, criminal law clearly distinguishes individuals participating in crimes in various capacities. 

If you are accused of assisting someone in the planning or execution of a crime, either before or during the crime, or if you help someone avoid the law after committing a crime, you can be charged with a crime yourself (either as an accomplice or an accessory) under California's "aiding and abetting" laws (Penal Code 31 and 32 PC). 

What Is the Difference Between an Accomplice and an Accessory?
If you assist someone in a crime or help after, you can be charged as an accomplice or accessory.

An accessory means assisting or aiding someone who has committed a criminal act without directly participating in its commission. An accomplice actively joins their crime companion to commit it together.

Some key factors differentiate accessories from companions, such as knowledge and intent. An accessory might know about criminal activities but not intend to engage in helping afterward, such as concealing evidence or providing false alibis.  By contrast, an accomplice combines both knowledge and intent for criminal behavior.

Another key factor is the level of participation. Accessories typically take on less of an active role than accomplices but will act more as secondary facilitators rather than active participants in criminal acts.

Simply put, there are some differences between an accomplice and an accessory. Depending on the circumstances of your case, the role you're accused of playing in the crime will determine how you are charged and what sentences you may face for your criminal participation under California law.

Aiding and Abetting Laws: PC 31 and PC 32

Let's begin with a quick overview of California's aiding and abetting laws:

  • Penal Code 31 PC makes it a crime to aid and abet in committing a crime or to advise and encourage its commission. This applies to accomplices (those involved at the crime scene) or accessories before the fact (those who knew of the intention to commit a crime and assisted beforehand). Someone who aids and abets in either of these ways can be charged with the same crime as the principal perpetrator, even if their role was merely supportive.
  • Penal Code 32 PC, on the other hand, defines an accessory after the fact as anyone who, knowing that a felony has been committed, harbors, conceals, or aids the principal offender with intent to help them evade arrest or trial. This person can be charged with a separate felony and may face up to three years in prison.

What are the Legal Definitions?

Penal Code 31 aiding and abetting law says, “All persons concerned in the commission of a crime, whether it be felony or misdemeanor, and whether they directly commit the act constituting the offense, or aid and abet in its commission, or, not being present, have advised and encouraged its commission, and all persons counseling, advising, or encouraging children under the age of fourteen years, or persons who are mentally incapacitated, to commit any crime, or who, by fraud, contrivance, or force, occasion the drunkenness of another for the purpose of causing him to commit any crime, or who, by threats, menaces, command, or coercion, compel another to commit any crime, are principals in any crime so committed.”

Penal Code 32 PC accessory after the fact says, “Every person who, after a felony has been committed, harbors, conceals or aids a principal in such felony, with the intent that said principal may avoid or escape from arrest, trial, conviction or punishment, having knowledge that said principal has committed such felony or has been charged with such felony or convicted thereof, is an accessory to such felony.”

What are the Key Differences?

While discussing accomplices versus accessories, California law recognizes three categories of people who assist in committing a crime: accomplices, accessories before the fact, and accessories after the fact.


An accomplice is present during the crime and actively helps the perpetrator commit it. This assistance can be physical, logistical, or even moral support that contributes directly to the commission of the crime. For example, in a bank robbery, the individual driving the getaway car can be charged as an accomplice.

Accomplice and Accessory in a Crime

Accessory Before the Fact

An accessory before the fact refers to an individual who plays a significant role in the planning and executing of a crime without being physically present during its commission. This may involve providing resources, information, or strategic planning that enables the crime to occur. 

Despite their absence at the crime scene, accessories before the fact are deeply implicated in the crime's conceptualization and preparation. For instance, if someone supplies a blueprint for a building that is later robbed, they could be charged as an accessory before the fact.

Accessory After the Fact

An accessory after the fact is someone who aids a known felon after committing the crime. This assistance is typically aimed at helping the felon evade arrest or prosecution and can include providing shelter, financial support, or help escaping law enforcement. For example, someone who knowingly provides shelter to a fugitive can be charged as an accessory after the fact.

One additional note: While accomplices and accessories before the fact can be charged via PC 31 in either misdemeanor or felony cases, PC 32 (accessory after the fact) only applies to felony crimes. In other words, you can only be charged as an accessory after the fact if you knowingly harbor or protect someone who has committed a felony. If the person committed a misdemeanor, PC 32 does not apply.

What About Criminal Charges and Penalties?

If you're accused of aiding and abetting, your criminal charges will depend on your alleged level of participation in the crime. Specifically, the following:

  • If you're accused of being an accomplice or an accessory before the fact, you can be charged with the same crime as the principal offender as though you had committed the crime yourself. In other words, there is no separate "aiding and abetting" crime under PC 31.
  • If you're accused of being an accessory after the fact, you can be charged with a separate felony offense under PC 31.

Thus, the possible penalties are as follows:

  • For accomplices and accessories before the fact: The maximum penalty will match the penalty for the original crime in question. For example, if you're accused as an accomplice to first-degree murder, you could face 25 years to life in prison without parole, the same as the person who committed the murder.
  • The maximum penalty for accessories after the fact is three years in prison, regardless of the original crime.

Contact our law firm for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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