COMMENTARY: Who you hangin' with these days?

By Judge Rudy Nichols

Freedom of association--it is a strongly held view by many people, in fact even grafted into our Constitution. It is so engrained that we are often told we should not engage in guilt by association. While that is true generally, a jury recently found a defendant guilty by his participation in a crime and that participation was directly related to his association with a co-defendant.

Regrettably, this is too common with young people under the age of 25. The law involved that I am speaking of is a tough law, perhaps even harsh or unfair. It is called "aiding and abetting" and here is how it works. Anyone who intentionally assists someone else in committing a crime may be charged and convicted as if he were the person who actually committed it.

The reason it is tough is because it embraces the idea of one crime attaching to more than one person, the person who encourages, assists or participates in that crime. The problem is that there are circumstances where that person has acted innocently, genuinely without any knowledge that that perpetrator was going to commit the crime. However, just being present and associated with that person gives the appearance, sometimes unfairly, that that person is involved someway with the commission of a crime. To repeat, a person can be found guilty of a crime he himself did not commit.

You may ask, how? Depending upon the aider's knowledge, that person can be convicted of serious felonies, felonies that require prison terms, for the following acts:

* Making an unwitting contribution.

* Appearing as a lookout.

* Giving a warning.

* Making a gesture signaling action.

* Cooperating in a criminal act.

Consider two teenagers who need some money. One decides by himself he could get it by robbing someone else. The other person just goes along for the ride; he was not there to commit the crime. But he finds himself looking out for other people and driving away the car. The first person was the one who actually committed the crime. The other simply drove away and kept an eye open for other people coming around.

Later, the victim identifies the "aider" as the person who drove the car and he is charged with robbery, a 15-year crime. He argues he was merely present and did absolutely nothing to assist in the actual robbery. Nevertheless, he is convicted by a jury and sentenced to 3-15 years with Department of Corrections.

This offense, and others like it, occurs regularly in trial courts, and young people are often the ones who get caught in the snare. Kids basically "hanging out" find themselves not only associating with but participating in what turns out to be a crime. And it turns out to be a felony which oftentimes scars them for life since potential employers are reluctant to hire such individuals.

So, what does this mean? Simply that you have to be careful of the friends you choose to hang out with--even more, what they do. This is because it is not only what you do but what your friends do as well that can get you into a whole lot of trouble.

By the way, if you just happen to carelessly associate with someone and do not take care in selecting your friends, there is a second lesson to learn. That lesson is to take a position and object once you conclude your "friend" is going to commit a crime. It is a tough thing to do, but it is a must. Break away and immediately cut off your connection with that person, otherwise you may find yourself going to prison with your so-called "friend."


Judge Rudy Nichols has served on the Oakland County Circuit Court bench since 1991. He is a former member of the Michigan House of Representatives and Michigan Senate.

Published: Fri, Mar 14, 2014