Accessory to a crime and personal accountability

In the event of a crime, accountability is everything. Although society dictates that people are all responsible for our own actions, the same does not hold true in the eyes of the law. Individual responsibility is inherent when a crime is committed by one person, but when two or more persons are involved that responsibility must be shared, regardless of the role they played.

There is a legal term called “common purpose” or “joint enterprise”. These are phrases used in criminal cases whenever two or more people are engaged in criminal activity. What it means is that all people involved are equally accountable for the action that took place because they had a shared interest.

Case and point is a man by the name of Leonard. Leonard was a 47-year-old man who lived and worked in Moberly, Missouri. He and his wife had raised three children, were comfortably settled into their middle-class lifestyle and looking forward to one day retiring to Arizona.

After a hard day’s work, Leonard stopped in at a local tavern to have a couple of beers with his buddies. He had known Bob and Cal since high school and the three had a close relationship. Bob mentioned to his friends that he needed to go and pick up some money that was owed to him and asked if they wanted to ride along. They cordially accepted and Leonard offered to drive them.

When they reached their destination, Cal and Bob went inside while Leonard waited in the car. Only a few minutes had gone by before he heard a shot ring out from inside the house. The dispute over the money had gotten out of hand and Bob fired one shot into the man’s chest, killing him instantly. Bob and Cal were both sentenced to life in prison. Leonard was sentenced to 25-life.

The fact that Leonard had no knowledge and was not responsible for the crime, he was still held accountable. To better understand the difference (as they are synonyms to one another), let us say that you are “responsible” for monthly reports at the office. You fail to submit the report timely, so your boss is held “accountable”. There could be hundreds of examples given, but the outcome would be the same. Just because you’re not responsible for a given situation, you can still be held accountable.

Ignorance is never bliss when it comes to the law. Although Leonard had no knowledge of the events taking place inside of that house, he was considered to be just as guilty as the person who pulled the trigger because he had driven his car to the scene and had a “shared interest.” Is it fair? Probably not.

In the eyes of the law you are considered to be responsible for the company that you keep. Common purpose resides within a very gray area of the law. The premise is, that if someone has prior knowledge of the crime that took place, that are just as liable as the one that committed the act. In Leonard’s case, since he did drive the shooter to the residence, the court concluded that he had prior knowledge.

For further information on this subject, I strongly recommend “Answering for Crime: Responsibility and Liability in the Criminal Law” written by R.A.Duff, and “Responsibility in Law and Morality” By Peter Cane. When it comes to legal ramifications, never assume anything. And, if someone just happens to hold up a liquor store while you are waiting in the car, you had better get yourself a good lawyer.


Reconstructing Criminal Law by Nicola Lacey, Celia Wells, Oliver Quick
Answering for Crime: Responsibility and Liability in the Criminal Law by R.A.Duff
Responsibility in Law and Morality” By Peter Cane