Roles and Participation in Crime

While crimes are often only committed by one person, there are circumstances where several people are involved in the same crime. In such cases, participants may play different roles in carrying out the offense. In North Carolina, while the role a person plays does not establish a separate kind of offense, it does play a big role in some aspects of criminal proceedings and establishing guilt.

Below we discuss the key principals for describing the nature of a person’s actions in a given crime.

judges gavel in a courtroom, where the defense attorney will argue various bars and defenses to prosecution

Principal in the First Degree

The “principal” refers to the person committing a crime and can either be in the first or second degree. Principal in the first degree refers to a person who committed the crime directly by themself, caused another innocent person to cause a criminal offense, or committed a crime directly with others. All principal in the first degree crimes are punished at the same level.

Committing the Entire Crime

The most straight forward way to commit a crime is when a single person commits all of the acts that constitute that crime, under the required state of mind. This is a form of “principal in the first degree”, where principal is the person committing the crime.

For example, if we take the crime of “assault by pointing a gun“, a person is guilty of committing the entire crime if they:

  1. intentionally
  2. point a gun
  3. at another person.

The first element of this crime refers to the required state of mind, and the following elements refer to the required actions the defendant must have taken to be guilty of this crime.

One important note is that the alleged offender does not need to be present when the offense takes place to commit the entire crime. For example, if a person plants poison for someone to drink, or sets a timed bomb and leaves, they will still be guilty of a direct criminal offense.

Acting Indirectly

A person is guilty of acting indirectly when they, with the required state of mind, uses another person to cause a crime in the guilty person’s absence. This is also considered a “principal in the first degree” crime, because the guilty party is still the key person trying to cause a crime to happen.

For example, if a defendant employs another to commit a crime and that other person cannot be found guilty because of insanity, immaturity or absence of knowledge of what they were doing, then the defendant is guilty of acting indirectly. On the other hand, if the other person is not innocent, then the defendant may be considered an accessory before the act, or an aide or abettor.

Acting in Concert

A person is guilty of acting in concert when they:

  1. are actually or “constructively” present at the scene when a crime is committed
  2. acts together with another who does acts necessary to constitute the crime
  3. pursuant to a common plan or purpose.

Essentially, when more than one person agrees to commit a crime and they carry it out together, they are all acting in concert. In this instance, multiple people can be considered principal in the first degree, given that they shared the same role in completing the crime.

“Active” presence here refers to actually being physically present when they crime occurred. “Constructive” presence refers to being close enough to render assistance if needed or to encourage the perpetration of the crime. For example, if a person is stationed close by in a vehicle while their accomplices commit a burglary, they may be considered acting in concert if they were in on the plan and help their accomplices escape the scene.

Principal in the Second Degree

A person is principal in the second degree if they help commit the crime but are not a main perpetrator. Generally, a person who aides or abets a crime is guilty of that crime and punishable as that crime law provides. However, some criminal statutes do punish such crimes at a lower level.

Aiding and Abetting

A person is guilty of aiding and abetting a crime if:

  1. A crime is committed by another person,
  2. That he or she knowingly advises, instigates, encourages, or helps the other person commit the crime, and
  3. his or her actions or statements caused or contributed to the commission of the crime by the other person.

The person guilty of aiding or abetting does not need to be present when the crime is committed, they could, for example, be offering advice on committing the crime from a distance. It is important to note here that while instigating somebody to commit a crime is usually considered aiding and abetting, there are circumstances where it becomes “acting indirectly”, as discussed above. The person encouraged, advised, helped or instigated must have been capable of understanding their actions and reasonably able to refuse such help or encouragement.

Accessory before the Fact to a Felony

A person is guilty of being accessory before the fact to a felony when:

  1. before a felony is committed by another person, he or she counsels, commands, or knowingly helps that person commit the felony,
  2. the felony is committed by the other person, while the accessory is not present
  3. his or her actions or statements caused or contributed to the commission of the crime by the other person.

In essence, this refers to help or commands given before a crime is committed by another person.

This particular principal is unique in that North Carolina legislature abolished its use in almost all circumstances except in capital punishment cases.  Essentially, most of the conduct described here is covered under aiding and abetting, but capital cases such as first-degree murder are treated differently. In such cases, being accessory to the capital offense can result in a person being guilty of a Class B2 felony, rather than a Class A felony.

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