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SWINDLE COLUMN: Guilty by association

You are justified in avoiding people who send you from their presence with less hope and strength to cope with life’s problems than when you met them.” Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Summer – 1982 – Carrollton – 11:30 am – Two boys walk to a convenience store close to their homes. These boys were “raised right” and taught not to lie and/or steal. 

Steve, the oldest boy, leads his 17 year old friend, Richard, to the store to pick up some gum, slushy and boiled peanuts. 

They both wait at the checkout line. Richard does not realize that Steve also helped himself by placing multiple items in his pocket without the intent to pay for them. 

The boys leave the store without an alarm signaling the theft. As they begin to walk to Steve’s home, a police officer stops them, searches Steve’s pockets, and both boys are detained for the crime of theft by shoplifting.

Years ago, my grandfather, who was like a father to me, and I would ride from his farm in Berrien County to Adel in order to pick up some things from town.

Those short road trips with Papa James taught me many things about political perspectives, loyalty and courage.

One of the things that I distinctly remember about one of our trips was him warning me about the dangers of hanging around the wrong people. Papa James would often illustrate for me what he meant by this. Like the example above,  Papa James would point out that I might not even know that my friend stole something from a store. I would be in trouble nonetheless.

He called this type of trouble “guilt by association.” Well, I must say that he was mostly right about this. As Judge Al Johnson often says, “Your friends can get you into more trouble than you can get yourself into.”

How could that be? There is a concept in Georgia called “Party to a Crime.” The state of Georgia has detailed the law governing these types of circumstances in O.C.G.A. 16-2-20. 

This law provides that: (a) Every person concerned in the commission of a crime is a party thereto and may be charged with and convicted of commission of the crime. (b) A person is concerned in the commission of a crime only if he: (1) Directly commits the crime; (2) Intentionally causes some other person to commit the crime under such circumstances that the other person is not guilty of any crime either in fact or because of legal incapacity; (3) Intentionally aids or abets in the commission of the crime; or (4) Intentionally advises, encourages, hires, counsels, or procures another to commit the crime.

Most people get in trouble based on subsections (3) and (4). These elements are very broad and can be a basis to convict a person based solely on “guilt by association.”

The Georgia Court of Appeals has further explained the definition of party to a crime in the case of Jordan v. State, 281 Ga. App. 419 (2006). The Court held that “A participant to a crime may be convicted although he is not the person who directly commits the crime. A person who intentionally aids or abets in the commission of a crime or intentionally advises, encourages, hires, counsels, or procures another to commit the crime may be convicted of the crime.

For instance, if three people decide to rob liquor store, one person always sits in the “get away car.” During the armed robbery, the “get away driver” doesn’t even go into the store. As he waits for his friends, he hears a gunshot. One of his friends shot and killed the clerk. 

The get away driver will be charged with murder, felony murder, and armed robbery even though he was not in the store and did not pull the trigger. The driver will always be charged under the party to a crime legal theory.

1 p.m. – Both boys are arrested and charged with theft. Steve tells the police that Richard put the items in Steve’s pocket in an attempt to avoid consequences. As always, lying to get out of trouble is an ineffective way to deal with any situation. 

9 p.m. – The boys bond out of jail. Eventually, the charges are dismissed against Richard. He was very lucky because one of the store videos showed Steve stuffing his pockets. 

Today, Richard is the CEO of a technology company based in the U.S. Steve is serving a life sentence for armed robbery.

But, had Richard not disassociated himself with Steve and other people in his life who were bad influences, disloyal, negative, and had no moral compass, he might be sharing a prison cell with Steve. 

I have made mistakes in my life just like everyone else. But, I am grateful for Papa James’ sage advice; avoid anyone who does not have your best interest, surround yourself with honest people full of integrity, and never allow a person to make you “guilty by association.”