We all know that a person who commits a crime can be prosecuted for his or her actions, but when it comes to other people involved, the law is a bit more confusing. Most of us have heard many different terms that refer to people tangentially involved with crimes on the news or on crime shows. These terms are used in very similar situations, and it is easy to get them confused. Knowing the difference in the legal implications of the terms “principal,” “conspirator,” and “accessory” can be very helpful in understanding these stories or if you ever are accused of a crime.


The “principals” in legal terms are the people who are charged with allegedly committing the offense. Typically, when we think about crime, these are the people we consider to be criminals. Technically, there are different types of principals; for this post I will only discuss a principal in the first degree and a principal in the second degree. A principal in the first degree is a person who is charged with actively carrying out criminal actions, one who commits the act “with his own hand.” A principal in the second degree is a person present during a criminal action who knowingly helps the crime occur but does not actively participate. Typically, these people have more passive roles, for example, a lookout during an armed robbery.

To make this distinction clearer, imagine a bank heist for a moment. There are four men in masks that drive up to a mall where the bank is located at night. One man is the getaway driver. He stays in the car with the engine running. Three of men get out and enter the mall. One man stays outside to watch for security and stand in the way of a camera. The other two break into the bank, blast into the vault and steal millions of dollars. When they are caught, all of these people will be charged as principals in the crime. However, the getaway driver and the lookout technically didn’t break any laws while they aided in the bank robbery, so they will be charged as principals in the second degree. Sometimes the punishments will be less serious for principals in the second degree, but not usually. Most jurisdictions will hold all people who committed the offense equally responsible. In some states, this distinction is no longer even made.


Sometimes there are people who assist in a crime even if they are not present when it occurs. These people are considered to be accomplices to the crime. Usually, these people are referred to as “accessories.” An accessory could help the principal commit a crime in many ways.

Consider my bank example again. Imagine that a fifth man worked for the bank and willfully did not set the alarm properly at the end of the day. Maybe he instead gave the men bank floor plans. Maybe he gave them the getaway car. Maybe he even babysat one of the robber’s children so that he could commit the crime. As long as the fifth man knew ahead of time that the crime would be committed, he can be charged as an accessory. Depending on the level of his help, he can be charged equally as the principals. Generally, however, spouses of principals cannot be charged as accessories unless they actively participated in the planning of the crime. Simple knowledge is not enough.

Another kind of accessory is an accessory after the fact. This is someone who helps criminals after the crime is committed. They did not have to know a crime was going to be committed before. This can include actions such as hiding perpetrators of a crime from the police, giving them money to escape, or lying to law enforcement. Usually the punishments for accessories after the fact are less severe.

Conspirator / Co-Conspirator

By definition, a conspiracy is defined as when two or more parties knowingly agree to commit a criminal act. Each member of the conspiracy is called a co-conspirator. Sometimes a person will be charged with both the conspiracy and the actual crime, compounding punishment.

Even if a crime is not successful, you can be charged with conspiracy. Had the bank robbers in my example been arrested before they ever even entered the mall, evidence of their plan to rob the bank could still cause them to be charged with conspiracy. Also, if you hire someone to commit a crime for you, you can be arrested as a conspirator as well. While the differences between these terms may seem minimal, they can affect the way lawyers build a case and your penalties after conviction.

If you have recently been charged with a criminal offense as a principal, accomplice, or conspirator, you should seriously consider hiring an experienced Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer who can protect your rights. Call me at (215) 839-9529 for a free legal consultation.

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