When Can Someone Be Charged with Accessory After the Fact?

Posted by Ronald D. HeddingAug 23, 2022

Under California law, if you know someone has committed a felony crime and you willfully hide them or aid them in evading capture or brought to justice, you could be charged with accessory after the fact defined in Penal Code 32 PC.

Accessory After the Fact - Penal Code 32 PC

This law makes it a crime to assist a known felon by hiding, harbor, or aiding them in avoiding the law. A conviction carries up to 3 years in prison.

PC 32 says: “anyone who, after a felony was committed, harbors, conceals or aids a principal in such felony, with the intent that said principal may avoid or escape from arrest, trial, conviction or punishment, knowing they committed or charged with a felony, is an accessory to such felony.”

In other words, according to PC 32, an accessory after the fact is described as somebody who, knowing that a felony has been committed, "harbors, conceals, or aids" the person to help them avoid arrest, trial, conviction, or punishment.

Thus, being an accessory after the fact could involve more than just helping a felon avoid being arrested immediately after the crime was committed; it could also include helping them escape justice at any point during the trial or before sentencing. Examples include:

  • Being the driver of a getaway car after an armed robbery,
  • Purchasing a plane ticket for a defendant to jump bail,
  • Giving police false statements about a wanted person's location.

Numerous actions could make you an accessory after the fact, but an exception includes declining to testify against someone.

Related crimes include aiding and abetting under Penal Code 31 PC, which is helping someone in the commission of the actual crime, as opposed to helping them after the fact. Another is a criminal conspiracy under Penal Code 182 PC, which involves one or more people in planning the crime before it's committed.  Our California criminal defense attorneys will review further below.

Accessory After the Fact - Explained

In my 30-year career, I've handled several accessory after the fact cases, and basically, what it amounts to in layman's terms is that somebody aids or helps another person who has committed a felony – it has to be a felony – either helps them escape, hide evidence, lies to the police, hides them.  It enables the person after the crime is committed.

When Can Someone Be Charged with Accessory After the Fact?

Sometimes, somebody is a getaway driver, and they get them an accessory after the fact.  The prosecutor's charge, for example, I've seen a bunch of cases where a person is charged with attempted murder because someone shoots at another person in their car or outside their vehicle.

They jump in the car, and the person drives them away, so the prosecutors argue that the client is part of whatever the perpetrator did. 

So, if someone shoots at somebody, they charge them with attempted murder, and the prosecutor should know better than that.  If the person driving didn't know that the person who shot the gun was armed, didn't know they were going to shoot at somebody, they shouldn't be charged with the same crime.  That's what it boils down to:

  • Is the person part of the crime?
  • Are they helping?
  • Did they know?
  • Did they help the person after the fact?

Or, maybe it's a scenario where they shouldn't be charged with either crime because they didn't know what was happening. Perhaps the person had a gun, or the person tricked them and helped them, depending on the case's facts and circumstances.

What Are the Penalties for Violating PC 32?

Once in a while, I see Penal Code Section 32 charged, but a lot of times, I see that it becomes relevant when someone is charged with another crime and then they are guilty of something but shouldn't be charged with the original crime.  They're more of an accessory after the fact. 

They're helping after the person commits the crime, so why should they be linked to the crime itself unless they helped in the escape, and that's where the dividing line is drawn.

In California, being an accessory after the fact is a "wobbler" that prosecutors can charge as either a misdemeanor or a felony. They will consider several factors in deciding how to charge you, including the specific facts and any prior criminal history you may have. The penalties are:

  • If you're convicted of a misdemeanor crime, you are facing up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $5000;
  • If you're convicted of a felony, the maximum fine is the same as above, but you could face up to three years in prison.

Contact Professional Criminal Defense Lawyers

If you're helping somebody escape in a car, you may get linked up with whatever crime they committed versus you helping them when everything's done; they've already escaped. 

Maybe now the police are looking for them, and you're hiding them in their house, or you do something else that messes with or obstructs the police's investigation that's likely to get you charged with accessory after the fact.

Professional Criminal Defense Lawyers in California

After the fact is after the fact of the crime. An accessory is you somehow helping them. Some of the common defenses for accessory after the fact charges are discussed below. 

Perhaps you did not know about the crime. If the perpetrator came to you for help but did not know they committed a felony offense, you can't be convicted as an accessory after the fact.

Perhaps we can argue that you didn't actively help them. You aren't an accessory if you were a bystander at the scene or while they were escaping; you took no specific action to help them.

Perhaps we can make an argument that you were under duress. Perhaps you were helping the felon because they threatened you or your family.

So, if you or a loved one is charged with this particular crime, you need help.  You've come to the right place.  I've been doing this for a long time.  I started out working for the District Attorney's office in east Los Angeles, then as a superior court judge, and finally, in 1994, I've been defending people just like you, hundreds of cases. 

If you need the best, pick up the phone and ask for a meeting with Ron Hedding. The Hedding Law Firm can be reached for a free case review by telephone or contact form.