What is assisting an offender?
Assisting an offender is a criminal offence in England and Wales. It involves carrying out an act with the intention of preventing another person being arrested or prosecuted, with the knowledge or belief that said person has committed a ‘relevant offence.’ In the context of assisting an offender a relevant offence is any offence that can be punishable by more than five years in prison. This includes Murder, Rape, Robbery, certain Drugs offences and many others.
It is an interesting offence that requires another offence to have been committed and acts that could otherwise be considered perfectly innocent (in the absence of the underlying offence) become illegal and punishable by a prison sentence.
What is an example of assisting an offender?
Someone who knows or believes that another person has committed a ‘relevant offence’ that then does any of the following might be guilty of assisting an offender:
- Washing the clothes of that person to remove evidence
- Allowing them to hide in their house/garden/shed/car
- Giving them a lift to the airport/ train station/ taxi rank
- Hiding or disposing of a weapon for them
- Disposing of a vehicle linked to the offence on their behalf
Some of these examples could also be considered to be the offence of Perverting the Course of Justice (PCoJ). The major difference between the Assisting an Offender and PCoJ is that PCoJ can be committed by the offender themselves whereas Assisting an Offender can only be committed by a person other than the primary offender.
Who can be arrested for assisting an offender?
The answer to this question is anyone who might have done something to help someone that has committed a relevant offence. In the initial stages of an investigation the police will not know whether the person who may have assisted an offender knew that the person they were helping was an offender!
Often arrests are made for good reason and the police have a genuine intention of investigating the person arrested. However, often the police will arrest those closest to a person suspected of a crime under the guise of Assisting an Offender when in reality they simply want obtain information about their friend/family member. The police will use the prospect of being charged with Assisting an Offender to intimidate people to give them information or reveal incriminating evidence. Similarly, the police may use a potential prosecution of a friend or family member for assisting an offender as a way of putting pressure on the original defendant to plead guilty.
A person arrested for assisting an offender might be arrested at the same time as the original offender or it might be a number of days, weeks or even months later.
What is the sentence for assisting an offender?
There are no sentencing guidelines for assisting an offender however, the legislation does give maximum sentences. The maximum sentences are dependent on the seriousness of the underlying offence.
With an underlying offence that is punishable only by a life sentence (e.g. Murder) the maximum sentence is 10 years in prison for Assisting an Offender. For an underlying offence that is punishable by 14 years or more the maximum sentence is 7 years. For underlying offences punishable by 10 years or more the maximum sentence is 5 years and for all other offences the maximum sentence is 3 years.
The maximum sentence is just that, a maximum and many of those convicted will not be sentenced to the maximum and the sentence passed will depend on the facts of the case, the seriousness of the original offence and the extent to which the primary offender was assisted and the level of culpability of the person being sentenced.
What should I do if I am being investigated for assisting an offender?
The best thing to do is to seek expert legal advice straight away. Not everyone investigated for Assisting an Offender is charged and the carefully considered and timely legal advice can make all the difference. If you are charged, expert representation can significantly affect the outcome at court.