SC Accomplice Liability: What is the “Hand of One, Hand of All”?

“The hand of one is the hand of all” is basically legal slang for accomplice liability

It’s a phrase that is often misinterpreted by police officers and even attorneys sometimes. Although a police officer might think that “if one goes, all go,” and “the hand of one is the hand of all” means that you can be arrested because your friend had drugs in their pocket, they are wrong.

In this article, we will cover the basics of accomplice liability law in SC, including:

  • What “the hand of one is the hand of all” really means,
  • Examples of accomplice liability, and
  • SC cases that define accomplice liability. 

Accomplice Liability – What is “the Hand of One is the Hand of All?”

You can be convicted of a crime even though you were not the “principal” who committed the crime if the State can prove that you:

  • Knew a crime was being committed,
  • Participated in the commission of the crime, and
  • Were present when the crime was committed. 

Under an accomplice liability theory, you can be convicted of crimes that you did not intend to commit if an accomplice commits a crime that was a “natural and probable consequence” of the crime that you did intend to commit. 

Who is the Accomplice & What Does it Look Like? 

The prosecution must identify who the accomplice is and what the accomplice did. 

In State v. Washington, for example, the SC Supreme Court held that it was not enough for the prosecutor to allege that the defendant acted in concert with some other person who was the shooter unless the prosecutor 1) identifies the shooter and 2) produces some evidence that they were, in fact, the shooter. 

Mere Presence at the Scene of a Crime

All too often we see cases where police officers arrest a person because “if you’re there, you’re guilty – it’s the hand of one is the hand of all you know.”

Except, that’s not how it works. 

If a person is “merely present” at the scene of a crime, they are not guilty of the crime. There isn’t even probable cause to charge a person with the crime unless there is some evidence showing that they also 1) knew the crime was being committed and 2) took some action to participate in the crime. 

Examples of Accomplice Liability

When can a person be convicted under “the hand of one is the hand of all?” 

Some examples of accomplice liability include:

  • You accompanied your codefendants to rob a house, but you stayed outside waiting in the car. Even though you did not enter the house or personally remove items from the house, you can be convicted of burglary because 1) you were there, 2) you knew what was happening, and 3) you participated by acting as a lookout or the getaway driver. 
  • You accompany a codefendant to rob a convenience store. During the robbery, your co-defendant shoots and kills the convenience store clerk. Even though that was not part of the plan, and you had no intent to commit murder, you can now be convicted of murder under the theory of hand of one is the hand of all (you could also be convicted under the “felony murder rule”). 
  • You and a friend get into a fistfight with another person on the street. You knock them down and you’re done, but, as you are walking away, your friend shoots them in the head. Even though you had no intent to kill that person and you did not pull the trigger, you could now be convicted of murder as an accomplice if the court finds that the death was a natural and probable consequence of your attack. 

Penalties for Accomplice Liability

A person who is convicted of a crime under a theory of accomplice liability is convicted of the crime – their sentence will be the same as if they had been charged as a principal. 

What is Not Accomplice Liability Under SC Law?

Mere presence or mere association with the person who commits a crime is not enough to convict a person under a theory of accomplice liability (see, State v. Kelsey, 331 S.C. 50, 502 S.E.2d 63 (1998)). 

Also, when an accomplice commits an additional, unplanned crime, you can only be convicted of that additional crime if it is the “natural or probable consequence” of the original offense that you intended to commit. 

For example:

  • You go with a friend to buy some drugs. After leaving the dealer’s house, your friend suddenly pulls into a store’s parking lot, jumps out of the car, and robs the store clerk. This is not a “natural or probable consequence” of the drug deal, and, unless you planned the robbery or participated in it somehow, you should not be convicted of robbery as an accomplice. 
  • You are standing in the yard with some friends when a police car pulls up. The officer finds a bag of cocaine that someone dropped on the ground, and, because he does not know who dropped it and no one will own up to it, he arrests everyone. Unless there is some evidence that you knew the drugs were there, this is a case of “mere presence” and you cannot be convicted of “constructive possession” or as an accomplice. 

What if the Principal Actor is Acquitted? 

If “the hand of one is the hand of all” requires proof that you were present, knew a crime was being committed, and participated in the commission of the crime, and the state must prove who the accomplice is and what they did, then it logically follows that a crime must have been committed, right? 

That makes sense, except the SC Supreme Court held in Butler v. State in 2021 that a defendant can be convicted as an accomplice to murder when the alleged principal was acquitted of the murder.

Mr. Butler is currently serving a 30-year sentence as an accomplice to murder when:

  1. A jury, in a separate trial, has said that there was no murder (acquitting the codefendant/accomplice of the murder), and
  2. A judge, in a separate trial, has also said that there was no murder (granting a directed verdict for another codefendant). 

Questions About Accomplice Liability? 

SC criminal defense lawyer Kent Collins will investigate your charges, answer your questions, and begin investigating your case right away. We will get your criminal charges dismissed, find a resolution that you can agree to, or try your case to a jury. 

Get in touch with Kent by phone at 803-808-0905 or use this form to reach him online to schedule your in-person consultation.

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