What is an “Accessory”?
Accessory to a crime after the fact means that you helped somebody after that person committed a felony with the intention that they escape punishment. It is a less serious charge than to help somebody in the planning or commission of a felony crime, but it is still a serious charge.
To be an ‘accessory’ to a crime, the original crime committed must be a felony.
Examples of being an accessory after the fact include:
- Being a false alibi by saying you were with them, or saw them somewhere other than the crime scene at the time of the crime was committed;
- Harboring a person who committed a felony so that he or she may avoid being arrested;
- Allowing a person to hide stolen items on your property;
- Helping a person escape the police by driving them to another location;
- Helping a person hide or destroy incriminating evidence, such as a weapon.
Penalties for PC 32, Accessory After the Fact
Being an accessory after the fact is a “wobbler“. Prosecutors may file the charge as either a misdemeanor or a felony. It depends on the facts of the case, and/or your criminal history. If charged with PC 32 you may face the following:
- a misdemeanor a $5,000 fine, and 1 year in a county jail, or
- a felony a $5,000 fine, and 16 months or 2-3 years in a California prison.
In addition, if the original felony was a deportable crime, you could face deportation even if you are an immigrant.
Possible Defenses for PC 32, Accessory After the Fact
There are certain instances where you will not be considered an “accessory”, according to law:
- No felony was committed. Since one of the elements that the prosecutor has to prove is that a felony was committed, if it can be shown otherwise, you cannot be charged as an accessory. If the crime is charged as a misdemeanor, you could be charged with another crime, such as obstruction of justice, but may not be charged with accessory after the fact.
- You had no knowledge of the felony. This is one of the elements that the prosecutor has to prove. It must be proven that you knew that the principal has committed the felony, has been charged with the felony, or was convicted of the felony. If you had no knowledge, you lacked the awareness that you were helping the principal to escape arrest, trial, conviction, or punishment, and you cannot be convicted of accessory after the fact.
- You were under duress. This might apply if you had a reasonable belief that the person you assisted would harm or kill you if you didn’t render him or her assistance. Intent is a critical element of proof for this crime.
- You were mentally incapacitated. The law uses, as a standard of law-abiding, ethical behavior, what a “reasonable person” would do in a similar situation. Someone who was exposed to intoxication by drugs or alcohol, or by a mental or physical illness that affects their ability to think, lacks the capacity to think and act in a reasonable way. Even if the impairment is temporary, your attorney can argue that you lacked the intent due to being incapacitated.
- You were a bystander. Meaning, if you see or hear a crime being committed, and you refuse to give information to the police, you are not an accessory after the fact. Your intention is to stay keep out of trouble, not to help the perpetrator escape justice. You are under no obligation to talk to the police. The best thing to do is to politely refuse, or ask to have your attorney present.
- You were a victim of mistaken identity. This defense would be most effective in an accessory after the fact case if, for example: you were charged with being a getaway driver or with providing some other type of support. Perhaps you just looked like the person that witnesses described, or your car/clothes matched the description that witnesses provided to the police.
It’s best to consult a criminal defense attorney regarding the specifics of your case, as every case has it’s unique set of circumstances.
There are several other crimes related to the charge of “accessory after the fact”. These include, but are not limited to the following:
- Aiding and Abetting (PC 31) – In California, if you help somebody plan or commit a crime you can be charged with the crime itself. For instance, if you know your friend is planning to rob an armored truck, and you help plan the crime by offering to hide the getaway car and some of the money in your garage during the planning of the crime, you could be charged as a principal, which means you can be charged with the crime of armed robbery.
- Obstruction of Justice (PC 148) – If the crime committed is a misdemeanor, for instance petty theft, you cannot be charged with accessory after the fact. However, you could be charged with obstruction of justice.
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