A woman by the name of Perez set up a drug buy—she agreed to sell a pound of marijuana to men named Gonzales and Painter. With two associates, Joseph and Rosemond, in tow, she drove to the arranged point of exchange.
After Perez, Joseph, and Rosemond arrived, Gonzales got into the car while Painter stood nearby. Either Joseph or Rosemond presented the marijuana, at which point Gonzales attacked, jumped out of the car with the drugs, and ran. Painter joined him.
One man—either Joseph or Rosemond—got out of the car and fired at the robbers with a semiautomatic. The shooter got back in, and the three would-be sellers began a chase by car. But before they could catch their adversaries, an officer pulled them over.
Lending a Hand
Prosecutors charged Rosemond with several crimes, including use of a gun in connection with a drug-trafficking crime. Because they couldn’t establish who carried and fired the gun, they allowed for the possibility that he simply aided and abetted the offense. (Rosemond v. U.S.,572 U. S. ____ (2014); see Opinion analysis: Justice Kagan writes a primer on aiding and abetting law.)
Under the theory of accomplice liability, one who aids and abets another in the commission of a crime is guilty of that crime. In other words, you can be punished as if you actually committed an offense even if you only assisted it.
As the Supreme Court reaffirmed last week, in order to aid and abet a crime under federal law, associating oneself with it isn’t enough. Instead, the defendant must “‘participate in it as in something that he wishes to bring about’ and ‘seek by his action to make it succeed.’” In short, the defendant must intend to aid the crime and commit some act to aid it.
Intent vs. Knowledge
In considering the drug-deal-gone-bad case, the Court found that Rosemond could be guilty of the drug-trafficking/gun-use crime even if he didn’t have anything to do with the gun. It was enough that he assisted in the attempted drug deal. That’s because an aider and abettor doesn’t need to aid and abet each element of a crime—assisting in just one part is enough for a conviction.
However, the Court drew an important distinction: An accomplice doesn’t have to intend to help with every element of a crime, but he has to know about each. He has to know about all elements before lending a hand, and early enough that he has an opportunity to quit the crime. So, the Court ruled that the prosecution had to prove that Rosemond knew about the gun before his colleague used it.
The prosecution had to establish that Rosemond knew a gun would be involved early enough that he could have abandoned the drug deal. If, for example, he hadn’t been the one to use the gun, and if he had become aware of it only as his colleague pulled it out, he couldn’t have been guilty of the offense. If, on the other hand, he had seen the gun when he first got together with his partners and nevertheless decided to carry on with the plan, he would’ve been guilty.
No Knowledge, No Conviction?
In a broad sense, it’s reassuring that people have to know almost exactly what they’re signing up for in order to be convicted as accomplices. But that doesn’t mean all-around acquittal for most people who agree to take part in criminal endeavors. Depending on the circumstances, the law may allow for a conviction of a lesser crime. For example, whatever Rosemond did or didn’t know about the gun, he was still on the hook for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.