Crimes are often committed by more than one person, but some people may be more responsible for the crime than others. Consequently, the law allows for this by distinguishing between the roles of each member of a group that has committed an offence. The level of responsibility held by each party to a crime determines the level of punishment.
Principal in the first degree
This is the person who actually carries out the criminal act. Such a person is usually referred to as the ‘perpetrator’. For example, if a group of people conduct an armed robbery of a service station, the person holding the gun and threatening the attendant is the principal in the first degree.
Principal in the second degree
This person assists others in the commission of a crime. The principal in the second degree is present during the actual crime but is not a main participant (they are usually referred to as an ‘accessory’). In the armed robbery of the service station, for example, this could be someone who was standing guard at the door. The courts usually treat this person in the same way as the perpetrator, giving the same sentence.
Accessory before the fact
This person helps others commit a crime by helping them plan or prepare the criminal act. However, they are not present at the time the crime is conducted.
In the example of the service station robbery, this person may have gathered information about the location of the safe and the timing and frequency of the security guard’s visits. The court may still impose the same penalty on this person as on the others.
Accessory after the fact
This person helps criminals after they have committed a crime, but is neither present during the crime, nor aware of it beforehand. The law recognises this offence only for serious crimes, such as murder and armed robbery. In the service station case, this person may have helped the others to elude the police or may have got them a new car. The courts would give this person a lesser punishment than that given to the others.