Liability for Crimes

Sometimes people are surprised that they may be implicated in a criminal act, even though they weren’t necessarily involved in all aspects of the crime. Liability for crimes can extend to everyone involved in various aspects of the crime, and can extend through time to involve aiding and abetting, accessory after the fact, and conspiracy.

Let’s talk about a few different types of criminal liability.

The most basic criminal liability involves a person acting as a principal in a crime. For instance, if a single person pulls out a gun and with premeditation shoots an individual, that person is the principal in the crime of First Degree murder.

Acting in Concert

What if two people intend to kill an individual, but only one of the two people has the gun and pulls the trigger? The second person, so long as he shares the same mental state and so long as he assists in an aspect of the crime, is similarly guilty as a principal in first degree murder. This is called “acting in concert.” It is a basic concept of criminal law that two or more persons may act as principals in the first or second degree or as accessories. Both actors are principals since each does an act that constitutes the crime and each acts with the necessary criminal intent (to kill). Even though neither individually did all the acts that constitute the crime, under the theory of joint participation or acting in concert the law treats them as partners in crime who have joined together for the common purpose of committing the crime of murder and each is held responsible for the acts of the other in the commission of the object offense.


A person may be criminally liable even if he did not participate in the acts of the crime, if the person enters into a conspiracy which involves a mutual understanding to commit a crime. In North Carolina, under N.C.G.S. Sec. 14-2.4, punishment for a conspirator is generally one class less than the punishment class of the crime. This reduction in punishment does not extend to drug trafficking; conspiracy to traffic in drugs is punished at the same level as the principal crime. (For instance, Level 1 marijuana trafficking would result in the same punishment as Level 1 conspiracy to traffic in marijuana.)

Accessory Before the Fact

North Carolina has abolished the distinction between Accessory-before-the-Fact and principal, except in the unique case that “if a person who heretofore would have been guilty and punishable as an accessory before the fact is convicted of a capital felony, and the jury finds that his conviction was based solely on the uncorroborated testimony of one or more principals, coconspirators, or accessories to the crime, he shall be guilty of a Class B2 felony.”

Accessory After the Fact

A person who assists a principal in the crime with either escape, evasion of police, or destruction of evidence may be guilty of a number of crimes, including obstruction of justice. At common law, it was generally the rule that the principal in the crime needed to be convicted (the person who shot the victim, for instance, needed to be convicted of murder) before the State could try the Accessory After the Fact for his crime. The theory was that if there was no underlying criminal conviction, there could be no accessory.

N.C.G.S. Sec. 14-7 effectively abolishes this requirement, and allows the State to try the defendant in an Accessory After the Fact case whether or not the principal has ever been brought to justice.

An accessory after the fact is punished to class levels below the class of the principal crime.

Solicitation to Commit

Solicitation is the act of either offering money or other inducement or encouragement with the specific intent that another person commit the crime. While the person who commits the crime is guilty of being a principal with respect to that crime, the person who induces or pays the other person to commit the crime is guilty of solicitation, which in North Carolina is punishable by a two-class-level reduction in the class of the original offense.

Felony Murder Rule

When someone dies in the course of a serious or violent felony, all accomplices in the crime can be held liable for First Degree Murder. This is a rule that dates back to the 1600s. The idea is that if everyone, for instance, agrees to rob a store, and one person pulls out a gun and shoots the shopkeeper, everyone will be held liable for First Degree Murder.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.