Can You be Accountable For Another's Crime?

two people on a heated argumentConsider the following. You and your friend Bill decide to drive to the University of Illinois Chicago campus to check it out. You agree to drive because Bill does not have a car. On the way there, you stop at the Sac-O-Suds convenience store to pick up some snacks. Because you are good citizens who practice social distancing, you stay at least 6 feet away from each other the whole time. But while in the Sac-O-Suds, Bill puts a can of tuna in his pocket and purposely leaves the store without paying. You don’t see him do it because you’re at least 6 feet away him and not wearing your prescription eyeglasses. Clearly, under these facts, Bill could be charged with Retail Theft because he took the tuna and purposely left the store without paying. But what about you? Are you responsible in some way? You did drive Bill to the Sac-O-Suds and then you did drive him away from the store with his shop-lifted tuna. He could not have stolen the tuna without your help. Could you be charged as an “accessory” to shoplifting?

What is Accountability?

First of all, under Illinois Law there really isn’t any such thing as being an “accessory” to a crime. You are either “accountable,” meaning equally guilty, or you are not “accountable.” Illinois Law states that you are considered accountable (meaning just as guilty) if you knew that Bill was planning to commit a crime before or during the commission of the crime and you helped him in any way to commit a crime. Illinois Law defines “helping” in many ways. If you intend for the other person to commit the crime then it is enough that you “solicit, aid, abet, agree, or attempt to aid that person in the planning or commission of the offense.”

In short, you do not have to do much for the law to decide that you helped. Something as simple as encouraging someone to commit a crime is considered helping. Recruiting someone to commit a crime, acting as a lookout, or driving the get-away car are all examples of actions that will make you accountable for the crime. And being accountable means that you get charged with the same offense at the same level. Prosecutors would not charge you as an “accessory” to retail theft. They would simply charge you with retail theft.

You Must Knowingly Help to be Accountable

Now that you know the basics of the law of accountability, what do you think? Would you be held accountable for Bill’s retail theft under the facts I described in the beginning of this blog? The answer is no. Even though you “helped” Bill to commit the crime by driving him to the Sac-O-Suds, you did not meet the first requirement of the law of accountability; the “knowing” part. You did not know what he was doing either before or during his retail theft. Remember, you must both “know” and “help” in some small way. On the other hand, if you and Bill agreed beforehand that you were going to drive him to the Sac O’ Suds so that he could steal a can of tuna and you drove him there, then yes you would be guilty of retail theft under the theory of accountability.

You May be Accountable for Unforeseen Crimes

Now let us change things up a bit. You agree to help Bill commit an armed robbery instead of a retail theft. You both decide that you will drive Bill there in your metallic, mint-green 1963 Pontiac Tempest. And you also agree to act as Bill’s lookout. The plan is for Bill to scare the clerk by brandishing a .44 caliber Magnum revolver. You make Bill swear that there will be no violence. He will only use the gun to scare the clerk. You also make Bill swear that he will adhere to proper social distancing protocols by staying at least 6 feet away from the clerk. Bill says, “Sure thing! 6 feet and no violence. Got it!” At this point you are satisfied with your agreement. You drive Bill to the Sac-O-Suds. Once inside the store, Bill not only ignores the social distancing protocols, but he also shoots and kills the clerk. Under these facts, you are accountable (guilty) for both armed robbery AND murder. Wait a minute, you say! You agreed to help Bill commit an armed robbery, not a murder. You did not even know he was going to shoot the gun. But under Illinois law you would still be guilty of both armed robbery and the crime of Felony Murder. This is another type of “accountability” under Illinois law.

I mention this because it is important for people to know how wide a net the law casts when you decide to help people commit crimes. Although you specifically told Bill “no violence!”, in the eyes of the law it does not matter that you told Bill not to commit violence. Under Illinois Law, if you agree to commit a crime with someone and help them, you are guilty of ALL crimes that they commit including ones you did not know about but were reasonably foreseeable. It is certainly reasonably foreseeable that when someone commits an armed robbery with a deadly weapon something may go wrong and somebody may get hurt or killed.

Speak to an Experienced Lawyer About Accountability

In Chicago and across Illinois, those charged with criminal and traffic matters are typically faced with the difficult decision of whether to plead guilty or to do a trial in court. Such an important decision should always be based on good legal advice and a proper understanding of accountability in cases involving more than one defendant. Call Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC at (312) 644-0444 or contact us online for a free consultation today.

Written by Mitchell S. Sexner Last Updated : January 13, 2023