Accomplice Liability (New York Penal Law 20.00) in Conjunction with Assault in the Third Degree (New York Penal Law 120.00)

Your buddy is waiting to be arraigned at 100 Centre Street in Manhattan for Assault in the Third Degree pursuant to New York Penal Law 120.00(1) for splitting someone’s lip with his fists. The worst part is you need an experienced criminal defense attorney as well. Why? Well, you are sitting right next to him. So, here is the question. How is it that he is the guy who threw the punches, but you were arrested as well? The answer is found in New York Penal Law section 20.00. As we like to call it…accomplice liability.

Under New York law, one is liable for the acts of another when:

“When one person engages in conduct which constitutes an offense [Assault in the third Degree in our hypo], another person is criminally liable for such conduct when, acting with the mental culpability required for the commission thereof, he solicits, requests, commands, importunes, or intentionally aids such person to engage in such conduct.”

To flesh this out a little, I will address this statute and concept in practical terms and in connection with a recent Manhattan Criminal Court decision. In People v. Sean Everson, 2009NY005871, decided, July 21, 2009, an information alleged that the defendant and others surrounded the complainant preventing him from leaving the location of the incident. Another individual, not the defendant, then struck the complainant in the stomach causing substantial pain. The defendant, however, did not strike the complainant.

The criminal defense attorney in Everson argued that the information or complaint was facially insufficient because it did not identify the defendant as the person who intentionally struck and injured the alleged victim. More specifically, the defendant claimed that there was “no causal connection between the alleged assault and the defendant’s conduct of surrounding” the complainant. Furthermore, the attorney argued that the information was not facially sufficient because it did not set forth that “the defendant surrounded the informant with the intent of causing physical injury, or that the defendant’s actions enabled or encouraged the unapprehended individual to assault” the complainant. Unfortunately for Mr. Everson, the court disagreed.

The courts reasoning after the jump…
Directly from the decision:

Penal Law 、20.00 provides that, “[w]hen one person engages in conduct which constitutes an offense, another person is criminally liable for such conduct when, acting with the mental culpability required for the commission thereof, [he or she]… intentionally aids such person to engage such conduct.” Accordingly, a defendant may be found criminally liable as the actual perpetrator or as an accomplice who aids, enables, or shares a “community of purpose”. (PL 、20.00 at 54; see also, People v. Mateo, 2 NY3d 383 [2004] (finding criminal liability attaches to “a person concerned in the commission of a crime whether he directly commits the act constituting the offense or aids and abets in its commission… “).

Moreover, in People v. Allah, the Court of Appeals found that accomplice culpability may be found even when the assistance is unplanned, if the totality of the evidence establishes the defendant “knowingly participated and continued to participate even after his companion’s intentions became clear… [and the] defendant shared a ‘community of purpose with his companion.” (People v. Allah, 71 N.Y.2d 830, 831, 832 [1988]). Similarly, in Matter of Kadeem W., the court found the evidence supported that a 13 year old was an accessory to and shared the intent of his companion’s conduct of firing several air gun shots at a security guard, even though defendant never fired the gun but merely taunted and threatened the guard. (Matter of Kadeem W., 2005 NY Slip Op 8848, 5 N.Y.3d 864, 865 (2005); see People v. Staples, 19 A.D.3d 1096 [4d 2005](where the court held evidence sufficient that “while only one person used the knife that inflicted the stab wounds, defendant was part of a group of at least four people who acted with a community of purpose); see also, People v. Rivera, 84 N.Y.2d 766, 770 [1995] (“There is no distinction between liability as a principal and criminal culpability as an accessory”).).

In the present matter, the information alleges that the defendant surrounded the informant and prevented his escape. Although this court acknowledges that the defendant did not punch the informant with his closed fist, the defendant was one of three men that approached and surrounded the complaining witness and prevented him from leaving. (See, People v. Staples, supra). Such action clearly aided and enabled the principal’s conduct of striking the informant. (See, People v. Rivera, supra). Given the totality of circumstances, this court can reasonably infer that the defendant shared a “community of purpose” with his companion to assault the informant. (See, PL 、20.00 at 54; see also, People v. Mateo, supra; People v. Rivera; supra.). Steven Buchholz and Thomas Roth, authors of “Creating the High-Performance Team” (1987) defined “Synergism” as “the simultaneous actions of separate entities which together have greater total effect than the sum of their effects.” If the allegations in the complaint are proven, the exhibited synergism of the actors in the instant matter is undeniable. Therefore, the factual allegations viewed in a light most favorable to the People, (People v. Cabey, 85 N.Y.2d 417, 420 [1995]), and “given a fair and not overly restrictive or technical reading,” People v. Casey, 95 N.Y.2d 354, 360 [2000], are sufficient for pleading purposes to establish the causal connection between the alleged assault and defendant’s conduct to support a prima facie case of [A]ssault in the [T]hird [D]egree.

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