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Accomplices in Florida: Principal Theory

Elsea Law Criminal Defense Accomplices in Florida: Principal Theory

If you or a loved one has been charged as a principal in a crime with co-defendants, it is vital that you reach out to an experienced attorney. Receiving accurate advice can help create a defense to your case. This page will provide useful information on the rule of principals (aka accomplices) so you can decide if you need to contact an experienced Tampa Defense Attorney.

What is a Principal?

The commonly used term “accomplice” is defined as a principal in Florida.  Simply put, a principal is a person who intentionally helps another person commit a crime.  Fla. Statute 777.011 defines the elements that must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt before someone can be convicted as a principal, including:

  1. The defendant had a conscious intent that the criminal act be done; and
  2. The defendant did some act or said something which was intended to, and which did incite, cause, encourage, assist, or advise someone else to commit or attempt to commit the criminal act.

A person does not have to be present at the scene of the crime to be charged and convicted as a principal.  Principal theory is a way for the government to hold minor participants fully responsible for the actions of a partnership or group that participates in criminal activity.  As such, understanding how the law works can make all the difference here.  Here are some examples of how people find themselves facing serious charges because of the rule of principals.

  • The Lookout – Crimes like burglary often require stealth. One tactic is to have someone act as a lookout to alert the actual burglars to the appearance of a neighbor, the homeowner, or law enforcement.  Under Florida law, the lookout can be charged with burglary.  NEVER tell law enforcement that you were “just the lookout.”
  • A Getaway Driver – If someone is robbing the teller inside a bank and uses a getaway driver to avoid arrest, the driver can be a principal if there is proof to satisfy the elements of Florida Statute 777.011.
  • The Bait – Victims of crimes like robbery are sometimes lured into compromising situations with the promise of a romantic or sexual encounter. If the object of the victim’s desire lured the victim into being attacked, they would be guilty as a principal, even without otherwise participating in the attack.
  • The Bankroller – A person who pays someone else to commit a crime may be guilty of the crime as a principal. An actual payment or the promise of payment will allow a case to move forward against someone who funds criminal activity­– so long as the crime is attempted or completed.
  • The Devious Licker – A TikTok trend that gained traction in 2021 is essentially a game where students film themselves stealing or destroying school property. Users of the platform could find themselves in trouble as a principal for merely encouraging someone else to commit a “#DeviousLick.”  Don’t let the sped-up Lil B track and peer pressure get you into trouble.

If a crime is considered a team sport, the state of Florida is more than happy to hand out participation trophies—even to cheerleaders and equipment managers. Being charged as a principal can apply to almost any crime under the right circumstances.

What are the Consequences of Being a Principal?

A principal is charged in the same way as any other criminal defendant.  Principals are often, but not always, charged as co-defendants.  The state does not have to (although they may) allege any specific statute to trigger the rule of principals.  A jury will be instructed at trial in a case pursued on a principal theory that a principal must be treated as if he or she had done all the things the other person or persons did.  A principal who is not the main actor in a criminal case will not be given a break like a lower maximum sentence or a reduction in level of offense for scoring purposes at sentencing.

Different Variations of Principal Charges

While principal theory requires that a crime (often referred to as the “target crime”) be attempted or completed by someone, other theories exist to prosecute individuals who have an even more tangential connection to criminal activity:

Accessory

People who become aware that someone has committed a crime have a general responsibility to avoid helping the criminal.  An accessory after the fact helps a defendant avoid detection, arrest, or prosecution after becoming aware that the defendant committed a crime.  There are some limitations to charging family members of a criminal with being an accessory.  There are also statutory defenses that apply to victims of domestic violence who are charged with being an accessory in certain circumstances.  Generally, accessories are punished less severely that perpetrators of the target crime.

Solicitation

The crime of solicitation is in the act of asking that another commit a crime.  The crime is completed at the moment the defendants ask.  No attempt or completion of the crime requested is required for a solicitation.  Solicitation is charged according to the “target crime” (the crime requested by the solicitor).  For example, when someone asks a prostitute (or an undercover cop posing as one) to commit a sexual act for money, they can be charged with solicitation to commit prostitution.  Substitute murder for prostitution and you have a murder-for-hire situation you hear about on a prime-time news magazine show.  Unlike a conspiracy, a solicitation does NOT require the participation of more that one non-law enforcement actor.

Conspiracy

A person who agrees, combines, or confederates with another person or persons to commit a crime will be charged with conspiracy of the target offense.  It is a legal impossibility for a person to form a conspiracy with an undercover law enforcement officer.  A conspiracy requires an agreement of at least two people who intend to commit the same crime.  Drug cases are a place from which conspiracy charges often arise.  In cases of trafficking, conspiracy charges carry the same minimum mandatory sentence as the target crime of trafficking.

Tampa Criminal Defense Attorney

Florida prosecutors are not shy about charging people using the law of principals. Whether the crime involves drug trafficking, theft, or murder, you can legally face the same punishment as those who are factually more culpable.  If you or a loved one has been charged as a principal or accomplice, it is vital that you get in contact with an experienced Tampa Criminal Defense Lawyer.  As a former state prosecutor, attorney Joel Elsea know how these cases are investigated, built, and tried in court. In some cases, a skilled attorney can work to convince the prosecuting attorney to decline to prosecute you. Elsea Law Firm, P.A. can protect your rights in a case built on principal theory. Call (813) 451-8583 today to schedule your free consultation.

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