Florida's Principal Statute: All For One and One For All

Occasionally, a prospective client will contact me and advise that although he or she was a minor participant in a criminal episode, he or she was charged in the same manner as his or her more culpable cohorts. These individuals are often surprised to learn that if they were aware of what was occurring, and played at least some role in the commission of the criminal offense, the law treats them as if they had actually committed the crime in its entirety. In other words, the "minor participant" can be (and usually is) charged, prosecuted, and punished in the same manner as the more (or most) culpable participant. This is known as the law of principal. Most states have a principal statute of some sort. In Florida, it is codified in section 777.011 of the Florida statutes.

This section provides that "whoever commits any criminal offense against the state, whether felony or misdemeanor, or aids, abets, counsels, hires, or otherwise procures such offense to be committed, and such offense is committed or attempted to be committed, is a principal in the first degree". The statute then goes on to state that such person "may be charged, convicted, or punished as such, whether he or she is or is not actually or constructively present at the scene".

In enacting this particular statute, the legislature determined that the law should not draw distinctions between varying degrees of culpability where all participants acted with the same criminal purpose and with the intent that the crime be committed. Instead, the law adopted an "in for a penny, in for a pound" approach to dealing with these situations. As the statute denotes, the crime does not even have to be completed; a person may be charged as a principal to an attempt.

Assume, for example, that A & B go into a local Wal-Mart to steal a color television set valued at $300.00 or more. A stands by as a lookout (to ensure that store security is not observing) while B takes the television from the shelf and walks out the door without paying for it. Both are apprehended in the parking lot. Even though A never took custody of (or even touched) the television set, A will be charged and prosecuted for grand theft in precisely the same manner as B. What if A never even went into the store but instead waited in the car for B to walk out with the television set? Same result: if it can be proven that A was aware of what was occurring, and was there to provide B with a means to escape, A will be prosecuted in the same manner as B. It may, however, be more difficult to make a case against a less culpable participant due to a lack of evidence ( i.e. A is detained before he can leave the parking lot and denies any knowledge of what B was doing in the store or that the television had not been paid for) but that is a different issue. If the proof is there, it's all for one and one for all.

This scenario is not limited to theft cases. It can come up in the context of many different types of criminal offenses. For example, if A stands outside a residence so that B can pass items to A from inside, where B made an unlawful entry, both will be charged as prosecuted for residential burglary. This is even though A did not enter the house. If one of the items stolen from inside was a firearm, both can be charged with armed residential burglary; a punishable by life felony. Another example may be where A sets up a drug deal and takes a cut of the profit; even though A did not physically deliver the drugs, A can be charged and prosecuted as if he or she had.

There are however, some limits on the application of Florida's principal statute as it relates to sentencing. If the crime charged involves an enhancement for use of a weapon, the enhancement is not proper unless it can be shown that the accused person had actual possession of the weapon (or firearm) during the commission of the crime. There are also some constitutional limitations on the imposition of the death penalty for persons charged as principals to murder (ire. where the principal does not kill the victim, attempt to kill the victim, or intend that the victim be killed).

If you think that your minor role in a crime will preclude you from being charged in the same manner as the most culpable co-defendant, you would be wrong. This does not mean, however, that your more limited involvement cannot be used to reduce your charge and/or sentence as part of a plea bargain, however. Just know that when it comes to committing crimes in Florida, its all for one and one for all.