Criminal Law. A person who assists another in connection with a crime, but without being present when the crime is committed.
At early common law, guilty parties to a felony crime were categorized as either principals or accessories. The actor that perpetrated the crime was the principal in the first degree, and all others involved were accessories. Accessories fell into three categories depending on their relationship in time and place to the crime: (1) an accessory before the fact, (2) an accessory at the fact, and (3) an accessory after the fact. Later, the party labeled accessory at the fact was renamed a principal in the second degree.
The common-law theory of parties to the crime is premised on the notion that guilt for the commission of one crime may attach to several. The liability of the secondary party–the principal second or accessory before or after the fact–derives from the criminal act of the primary party. This derivative liability does not mean that the secondary party’s actions are the cause in fact of the crime. The primary actor acts of his own volition. Instead, the secondary party incurs liability as a legal consequence of his own actions.