Hindering Prosecution in New York
If law enforcement is trying to apprehend a criminal, anyone who actively works against the prosecution may face criminal charges of their own. The crime of hindering prosecution does not necessarily mean that you participated in the original crime.
What Does “Hindering Prosecution” Mean?
Hindering prosecution means that you created obstacles for law enforcement or helped the accused try to get away with the crime.
The examples below are situations that could lead to charges of hindering prosecution in New York:
- You find out a friend of yours has robbed a bank. The police will be looking for him, and he looks similar to you. In order to help him get away undetected, you give him your identification and credit cards knowing that the police will be tracking him. You could face charges of hindering prosecution.
- A woman who works in an office knows that her colleague ran a fraudulent scheme. When she learns an investigation is imminent, she takes deletes the files and shreds any paper trail to help the fraud continue and to keep her colleague from being caught. The woman may be charged with hindering prosecution.
- Man and wife arrive at a hotel. The clerk recognizes the woman from a previous crime for which she was never arrested. In order to prevent the clerk from calling the police, the man threatens him and locks him in a closet in order to give the man and his wife a chance to leave. The man may be arrested for hindering prosecution.
The Legal Definition of Hindering Prosecution in New York
New York Penal Law sets out a definition for hindering prosecution and “rendering criminal assistance,” is the key element for all degrees of hindering prosecution. In order to have rendered criminal assistance, two elements must be satisfied:
- Action to help the criminal
The final element of hindering prosecution, which also determines the degree of hindering prosecution for which a person will be charged, is the underlying crime for which a person is accused of hindering prosecution.
Let’s take a deeper look at the elements that must be satisfied for any degree of hindering prosecution and then examine the underlying crime element that determines the degree.
Element #1: Intent
In general, intent refers to taking a certain action (or foregoing it) purposefully. There are two ways to satisfy the intent element:
- If a person knows or believes someone has committed a crime or believes that law enforcement is looking for someone in connection with a crime, the person seeks to prevent or put off arrest or charges for that someone.
Depending on the degree of the charges, a person may need to know that the crime committed was of a certain severity. For hindering prosecution in the first degree, the person needs knowledge of actions that amount to a class A felony. For hindering prosecution, the person needs knowledge of actions that amount to an act of terrorism.
- A person seeks to help someone that benefits from crime.
Element #2: Action to Help the Criminal
In addition to the intent to help them benefit or not get arrested, a person needs to take some sort of action to help the criminal. The statute outlines six categories of actions:
- Hiding someone;
- Warning someone that they are going to be arrested or found;
- Giving someone something to help them avoid being found or arrested;
- Using deception, force, or intimidation against anyone to keep that person from helping find, arrest, or prosecute someone;
- Hiding, changing, or destroying any physical evidence that might help with finding, arresting, or prosecuting someone; or
- Helping someone protect or profit faster from anything obtained through the crime.
Element #3: Underlying Crime
Proof of the underlying crime is both a necessary element to establishing that the crime of hindering prosecution was committed and the determining factor in the severity of charges brought. For third degree, the underlying crime must be any felony. For a second degree, it must be a class B or C felony. For the first degree, it must be a class A felony.
The same elements for hindering prosecution also apply to the crime of hindering prosecution of terrorism. Here, the underlying crime needs to be an act of terrorism for hindering prosecution of terrorism in the second degree.
If the act of terrorism resulted in the death of a person who was not participating in the act of terrorism, the charge is hindering prosecution of terrorism in the first degree.
Hindering prosecution is not the only criminal charge you may face. There are other, related charges that may be filed in New York and in federal court. Here are the main charges that are related to hindering prosecution:
Hindering prosecution occurs after a crime has been committed when law enforcement is attempting to identify, arrest, and prosecute the perpetrator. On the other end of the timeline is a conspiracy, which is the crime of planning or agreeing to commit or have a crime be committed. The elements of conspiracy are:
1) The intent for actions that would amount to a crime be performed; and
2) Make an agreement with at least one other person to have those actions performed.
Like hindering prosecution, the person does not need to participate in the underlying crime to be charged with a conspiracy. Rather, it is the conduct in planning or in furtherance of the criminal behavior. Also, like hindering prosecution, there are varying degrees of conspiracy. The crime to be committed and the involvement of minors increases the degree of conspiracy.
Accessory After the Fact
The federal law corollary to hindering prosecution is accessory after the fact. The elements of the federal crime are:
1) The knowledge that there has been a crime against the U.S.;
2) Action to help the offender in some way; and
3) Intent to help in order to get in the way of arrest or prosecution of the offender.
This would not apply in the case of helping someone who violated New York law but is the corresponding criminal statute for helping someone who violated federal law.
Essential and Impactful Cases on Hindering Prosecution
The court cases addressing hindering prosecution are essential for understanding what it takes to fight these charges in New York. Each element has been considered in detail by the courts, offering additional insight as to what it takes to prove (and challenge) each element.
A basic element
The prosecution must prove the underlying crime. This can be a straightforward element to prove if there is already a conviction. However, it is important to note that a conviction is not necessary. According to People v. Chico, it is only necessary to prove that the requisite crime was committed.
Moreover, in People v. Fisher, the person that was assisted was acquitted of the requisite crime. Still, the person charged with hindering prosecution could not withdraw his guilty plea since his admission of the underlying crime satisfied the elements of the crime.
The element of intent
A common area for litigation as the intent is difficult to prove objectively. Rather, the circumstances surrounding one’s behavior are interpreted to infer what he or she may have been thinking at the time. The case of People v. Williams involved a woman charged with hindering the prosecution of her boyfriend.
He robbed a store while she was working. When asked by the police, she claimed she did not recognize the robber. This deception was satisfactory for a jury to infer that she intended to help keep her boyfriend from being identified or apprehended.
Intent also requires some knowledge of the crime committed.
For hindering prosecution in the second or third degree, it only requires knowledge or belief of any crime. For hindering prosecution in the first degree, the knowledge or belief has to be of specific conduct that would amount to a class A felony.
- In People v. Chico discussed above, the individual charged with hindering prosecution heard about a murder from the person she helped to avoid prosecution. People v. Clough clarifies that a person need not be aware that the conduct is legally categorized as a class A felony.
The person only needs to be aware of the behavior itself. On the other hand, if a person provided assistance believing someone committed a class A felony and only a lesser crime was committed, it would not be hindering prosecution in the first degree.
- In People v. DeBeer, a man convicted by a jury of a single count of hindering prosecution in the first degree appealed. He contested being only charged with a single crime of a higher degree and argued that there should have been the option for a lesser charge of hindering prosecution in the third degree.
The prosecution argued, and the court agreed, that the element of action to help the actual or alleged criminal could be satisfied by one or more actions. The charges were brought after the final act of rendering criminal assistance.
Detection, Investigation, and Prosecution of Hindering Prosecution
Hindering prosecution charges are detected and investigated by local law enforcement. These charges are generally not independently pursued without a criminal case where someone has allegedly rendered criminal assistance.
If local law enforcement is investigating a crime of any severity or attempting to apprehend a perpetrator, they may become aware of someone’s actions that would rise to the level of hindering prosecution. If someone is identified as potentially hindering prosecution, he or she will face charges through the county court system.
It is possible that the person facing charges of hindering prosecution will be tried alongside the individual charged with the underlying crime.
In People v. Hayes, a man who was charged with hindering prosecution and tampering with evidence was tried as a co-defendant even though he did not participate in the crime.
Law enforcement and prosecutors are trying to prevent the type of wrongdoing that would inhibit their ability to do their jobs in the future. While individuals have certain rights regarding privacy, search and seizure, and avoiding self-incrimination, they are not permitted to thwart a criminal investigation into another person actively.
Statutory Penalties for Hindering Prosecution
The statutory penalties for hindering prosecution include fines and imprisonment, varying by the degree of the charge. The possible imprisonment is:
- Hindering prosecution in the third degree is a class A misdemeanor, which carries a prison sentence of up to one year.
- Hindering prosecution in the second degree is a class E felony, which carries a prison sentence of at least three and up to four years.
- Hindering prosecution in the first degree is a class D felony, which carries a prison sentence of at least three and up to seven years.
- Hindering prosecution of terrorism in the second degree is a class C felony, which carries a prison sentence of at least three and up to 15 years.
- Hindering prosecution of terrorism in the first degree is a class B felony, which carries a prison sentence of at least three and up to 25 years.
The fine is up to $1000 for hindering prosecution in the third degree because that is a misdemeanor. The other hindering prosecution charges are all felonies, which carry a fine of $5000.
Additional Consequences of Conviction
- A conviction for hindering prosecution can be particularly challenging. You could have just been acting out of misguided loyalty or thought you were helping a loved one that was being wrongfully persecuted. Unfortunately, no matter how small your actions were, they could forever be tied to another person’s criminal actions.
If you get prosecuted as the defendant in the Hayes case, you would be tried alongside individuals charged with murder. That would create long-term damage to your reputation.
- In addition, the crime of hindering prosecution generally entails some sort of deceit or lack of cooperation with police. Your reputation with law enforcement will damage your credibility in the future. This is true both if you have any future interaction with the justice system and in any situations where these events could play a role.
Many professional licensing boards focus on character as a component of granting someone a license. If a person has established a history of lying to officials, this will not bode well for becoming or staying licensed.
- Finally, fighting charges is a lengthy, costly, and stressful process. A conviction will only add to that burden. Any sentences you have to serve will mean more time away from your life and loved ones.
- In addition, time in prison is a time not spent working, which adds to the financial burden. The stress will be felt by you and your loved ones long after your conviction, especially if you have to spend time incarcerated.
Legal Defenses to Hindering Prosecution
Charges of hindering prosecution are stressful enough, and the statutory penalties and other consequences only exacerbate the situation. If possible, you want to avoid a conviction for hindering prosecution. An experienced defense attorney can help present these defenses to fight on your behalf vigorously.
There are no statutorily identified affirmative defenses, but it is possible to defend against each of the elements of the crime.
- First, the clearest defense would be to demonstrate that there was no underlying crime. For any degree of hindering prosecution, someone needs to have actually committed a crime. While it is true that the prosecution does not need that person to have been convicted, they do have to prove commission.
If there is anything other than a conviction for an underlying crime, one defense strategy is to establish that there is no crime for which prosecution was hindered.
- Second, a defense attorney could raise doubts about the intent element. As stated above, this element is usually proven through inferences based on the circumstances. A defense could include alternative ways to interpret the same circumstances.
For example, Take the Williams case involving the woman who did not give up the identity of her robber boyfriend. A defense could attempt to show that the specific situation would have made it difficult for her to be sure, such as the heightened emotional situation, an obstructed view, a disguise being used, or some other issue.
- Another part of the intent element requires knowledge of the crime. While the Clough case explained that the person does not need to know the legal categorization of the crime, there needs to be knowledge of some criminal behavior.
For example, if a man loans his car to a friend and later learns that the friend was trying to flee the state using the car, he did not hinder prosecution. He just loaned a friend his car for what he thought was an innocuous purpose.
- For the higher degrees of hindering prosecution or hindering prosecution of terrorism, the knowledge needs to be of conduct that entails a certain severity, even if you are not aware that that falls into the definition of a class A felony or terrorism.
If the conduct of which you were aware is a lesser crime, such as larceny, this would be a defense to greater charges of hindering prosecution. Part of a robust defense may consider strategies to lower the charges for which you could be convicted.
- Finally, a defense could include other motivations for any action, even with awareness of a crime. This would also go to intent, but the intent with respect to the desire to help a person get away or otherwise benefit from the committed crime.
If a woman suspects her roommate committed a crime, but before she can notify police, the roommate holds her at gunpoint requesting money to help flee. Giving roommate money would not satisfy the elements.
Rather, the woman could argue that the intent was her own survival, which could be bolstered by any actions after the fact. Any alternative motivations should be presented to bolster the defense against the intent to hinder prosecution.
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