In California, you can be charged with a crime if you help—in any way—a felon avoid getting in trouble. Helping someone who has committed a felony avoid the authorities or prosecution is referred to as being an accessory after the fact.
The legal definition of “accessory after the fact” is harboring, concealing, or aiding a person whom you know has committed a felony with the specific intent to protect him or her from arrest, trial, conviction, or punishment. For example, you could be charged with accessory after the fact if you:
- Let the person who committed the felony hide in your home to avoid the police
- Hide a vehicle or other pieces of property that would be incriminating
- Lend the person your vehicle or any other piece of property that would help him or her avoid the police
- Lie to the authorities about your knowledge of the crime or the whereabouts of the person who committed it
You can also be charged with a crime for helping the perpetrator in the commission of the crime (e.g. providing the getaway car or weapon), but the defining factor for charges of being an accessory is that you helped the person after—rather than before or during—he or she committed the crime. If you do help the person before or during the commission of the crime, you can be charged with a felony yourself. Accessory after the fact is a wobbler crime in California, meaning it can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the facts and circumstances of the offense and the prosecutor's discretion.
To convict you of accessory after the fact, the prosecuting attorney must prove you knew the crime was committed and that you willingly and knowingly helped the felon avoid arrest, trial, conviction, or punishment. Both of these elements can be difficult to prove. Possible defenses to this charge include:
- You didn't know the person you helped committed a crime. This happens more than you—or the prosecuting attorney—would think. Helping a friend in need is not a crime if you were unaware he or she committed a felony. In these cases, what you don't know can help you.
- You were an innocent bystander and not aware of your involvement. Again, this not uncommon. For example, if a friend who committed a felony parked his or her car in your garage without you knowing to hide from the police, you would be an innocent bystander.
- You were forced or coerced into helping the felon. You are not guilty of accessory after the fact if you helped the person who committed the crime against your will.
- You did not help the felon and were misidentified
When considering your defense options, make sure you speak with an attorney. Attempting any of these defenses without skilled legal guidance could do more harm than good. You should thoroughly go over all the facts and circumstances of your case with an attorney so he or she can identify the weaknesses in the prosecution's argument and help you strategize a defense based on the facts at hand.
Many people would take risks to help a friend or loved one who has committed a felony. Those risks—even if very small—can lead to criminal charges. You should always speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney if you are facing criminal charges for accessory after the fact. Even if you did not help the person commit the crime, it is a crime to help them avoid getting caught. A knowledgeable California criminal defense attorney can evaluate your case and explain your charges. At that point, you can make an informed decision about how to best proceeding in your case, whether that be fighting your charges or negotiating a plea bargain, both of which you will need an attorney's help to accomplish.
If you are facing criminal charges, contact attorney Christopher Martens and his legal team for help in Tulare, Fresno, or Kings County. Experienced in criminal defense, our Visalia area legal team can explain your charges and help you fight them step by step. Attorney Martens has over ten years experience in criminal defense and won't be afraid to take your case all the way to trial. Call our Visalia or Hanford, CA offices at 559-967-7386 or email us at [email protected] for a free consultation.