According to California law, if you know someone has committed a felony and you willfully hide them or aid them in evading capture or being brought to justice, you could face prison for being an accessory after the fact.
This law is embodied in Penal Code 32 PC, which makes it a crime to assist a known felon by hiding, harbor, or aiding them in avoiding the law.
PC 32 says: “Anyone who, after a felony was committed, harbors, conceals or aids a perpetrator in such felony, with the intent they could avoid or escape from arrest, trial, conviction or punishment, knowing they had committed a such felony or charged a felony or convicted thereof, is an accessory to a such felony.”
In other words, it's a crime to conceal or aid someone when you know they have committed a felony offense and you took action to protect them from arrest, trial, conviction, or sentencing.
You can be charged under this accessory after the fact statute if you help someone after they committed a felony by concealing, hiding, helping them escape from arrest, helping them financially, providing a false alibi, driving a getaway car, harbor them, or help them in any way.
However, it must first be proven that you knew of their illegal conduct before you can be found guilty of an accessory after the fact.
Penal Code 32 PC accessory after the fact crime is a “wobbler” that the prosecutor can file as either a misdemeanor or felony crime, which carries up to three years in prison if convicted. Our California criminal defense attorneys will look at this law further below.
What Does It Mean to Be an Accessory After the Fact?
According to PC 32, an accessory after the fact is defined as someone who, knowing that a felony has been committed, "harbors, conceals, or aids" the perpetrator to help them "avoid or escape from arrest, trial, conviction or punishment."
As you can see, being an accessory after the fact may involve more than just helping a felon avoid being arrested immediately after the crime has been committed; it can also include helping the person escape justice at any point during the trial or before sentencing. Examples may include:
- Driving the getaway car after a robbery,
- Buying defendant a plane ticket to help them jump bail,
- Lying to police about a wanted person's whereabouts.
While many actions can make you an accessory after the fact, one exception to the rule is declining to testify against someone. You cannot be charged with accessory after the fact for refusing to testify.
What Are Some Case Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: John knocks on his girlfriend Gina's door and asks her to hide him because the cops are after him for robbing a bank.
Gina hides her boyfriend in the attic and denies having seen him when the police knock on her door. Gina is an accessory after the fact because she is actively hiding a felon.
EXAMPLE 2: Dana is on trial for manslaughter. She claims to be innocent but cannot account for her whereabouts at the date/time of the crime.
To help her out, George invents an alibi for her and swears under oath that she was with him at the time. George is an accessory after the fact because creating a false alibi has unlawfully aided Dana in avoiding conviction.
EXAMPLE 3: Sam is an eyewitness to his friend Fred stabbing another person to death. He is subpoenaed to testify as a witness at the trial, but not wanting to "rat out" his friend,
Sam refuses to testify. While he may still be charged with contempt of court, depending on the circumstances, Sam is NOT an accessory after the fact.
What Are the Penalties for Violating PC 32?
In California, being an accessory after the fact is a "wobbler" offense, meaning prosecutors can charge the crime either as a misdemeanor or a felony. To obtain a conviction, the prosecution has to prove all elements (CALCRIM 440) of this type of criminal activity.
They will weigh several factors in deciding how to charge you, including the specific facts of the case and any prior criminal history you may have.
- If you're convicted of a misdemeanor, you could face up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $5000;
- If convicted of a felony, the maximum fine remains the same, but you could face up to 3 years in prison.
What Are the Related Crimes?
Depending on the circumstances, you may be charged with other crimes related to being an accessory after the fact. These may include, but are not limited to:
- Aiding and Abetting (Penal Code 31 PC): helping another person in the commission of the actual crime, as opposed to helping them after the fact;
- Criminal Conspiracy (Penal Code 182 PC): being actively involved with one or more people in the planning of the crime, i.e., before the crime is committed, rather than during or after;
- Penal Code 664 PC - attempted crimes.
How is PC 32 Different from PC 31 Aiding and Abetting?
Under California law, there is a crucial distinction between Penal Code 32 PC accessory after the fact and Penal Code 31 PC aiding or abetting. So, what's the difference?
PC 31 aiding and abetting law says: “any person who helps commit a crime is guilty.” The difference is essential.
Accessory after the fact means that you helped somebody who has committed a crime to avoid arrest after the crime was committed. Aiding and abetting means you participated in the crime itself.
What Are the Common Defenses?
To convict you as an accessory after the fact, the prosecution must prove that:
- You knew that the defendant had committed a felony;
- After the commission of the felony, you hid, harbored, or aided the defendant to help them avoid arrest, trial, conviction, or punishment; and
- When you hid, harbored, or aided the defendant, you did so willfully.
Thus, most defenses to the charge of accessory after the fact have something to do with refuting one or more of these points of fact. Specific defenses are discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue that you did not know about the crime. If the perpetrator came to you for help but didn't know they had committed a felony, you can't be convicted as an accessory after the fact.
Maybe we can argue that you did not actively help the felon. For example, you aren't an accessory if you were a bystander at the crime scene or while the felon was escaping and took no specific action to help them.
Perhaps we can make an argument that you were acting under duress. If you were helping the felon because they threatened you or your family, you were not helping them willfully, and therefore you are not an accessory.
If you are accused of violating Penal Code 32 accessory after the fact law, you might have believed you were helping out a friend, but these are serious charges that carry harsh consequences.
Contact the criminal defense law firm of Eisner Gorin LLP to review the case details and legal options. We have two office locations in Los Angeles County, California. You can reach us by phone or by filling out the contact form.