What Will Happen to Me If I Aid or Assist a Fugitive?

Many of us have faced a situation where a family member or friend is accused of a serious crime. Your first instinct may be to offer help. After all, if you believe the person is not guilty, then you want to do everything in your power to help them avoid possible jail time.

But there is a critical difference between offering moral or legal support–such as helping them find a qualified Collin County criminal defense lawyer–and actually helping them to hide from law enforcement. Such acts may be considered aiding or abetting a fugitive under Texas and federal law, and in some cases you may end up being charged as an accessory to the underlying crime.

Federal and State Laws Punish “Harboring”

In Texas, the law that criminalizes the act of harboring a fugitive is known as Hindering Apprehension or Prosecution. This is a very broad state law that could subject a person to criminal charges if they harbor, conceal, provide or aid in providing a person with the means of avoiding arrest or effecting escape; or even warns someone of impending discovery or apprehension. This law could even land parents in legal trouble if the person they are “harboring” is their own child. Hindering Apprehension or Prosecution is a Class A misdemeanor unless the harbored person is wanted for a felony, in which case it is a Third-Degree Felony punishable by 2-10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.

Now at the federal level, there are specifically enumerated offenses applicable to “fugitives for justice.” In this context, a “fugitive” is normally defined as someone subject to a court-issued arrest warrant, as opposed to someone who may merely be under suspicion of a crime by the police. Under 18 U.S.C. § 1071, anyone who “harbors or conceals” a person to prevent their “discovery and arrest” is guilty of a crime.

If the fugitive’s alleged offense is a misdemeanor, the penalty for harboring the person is no more than 1 year in jail. However, if the fugitive is charged with a felony, anyone who helps him or her evade arrest could face up to 5 years in prison. The judge may also impose a fine for a harboring conviction.

Note that just because you provide aid or assistance to someone charged with a crime, that does not necessarily mean you are guilty of harboring. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over federal criminal cases in Texas, has said that harboring requires the prosecution to prove three elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • the defendant knew that there was an outstanding federal arrest warrant issued for the fugitive;
  • the defendant committed one or more “physical acts” designed to help the fugitive avoid detection and arrest; and
  • the defendant’s actions were expressly “intended to prevent the fugitive’s discovery.”

The first and third elements–knowledge of an arrest warrant and intent–are often the most important when defending against a harboring charge. Say your brother asks you for the keys to your car. You think nothing of this, since he regularly borrows your car. If he then proceeds to rob a bank and uses the car to flee Texas, you are not guilty of harboring, since you did not know that he committed a crime–and therefore lacked knowledge of any arrest warrant–and you never intended to help prevent his capture by the police.

As for the second element–a physical act–the Fifth Circuit has said that merely failing to disclose a fugitive’s location or providing “financial assistance” does not, in and of itself, constitute harboring as defined by the law. But if the police come to your home looking for a fugitive and you lock him in the basement to conceal him, that would fulfill the “physical act” requirement.

Do You Need Advice From a Collin County Criminal Lawyer?

Texas prosecutors often use the threat of harboring or aiding and abetting charges to force family members or associates to testify against the principal. That is why if you know someone who has been arrested or charged with a serious crime and fear the prosecution may target you next, it is important to seek advice from the experienced McKinney criminal defense attorneys at Rosenthal & Wadas. Call us today at 972-369-0577.

Posted in Federal Criminal Defense

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