If you are facing charges in Texas under the law of parties, it can be difficult to understand, nonetheless reconcile. Regardless, it is important to understand what exactly the law of parties entails.

What is the Texas Law of Parties?

The law of parties states that a person can be criminally responsible for the actions of another in certain circumstances. This law is rooted in Section 7.01 of the Texas Penal Code, which states, “A person is criminally responsible as a party to an offense if the offense is committed by his own conduct, by the conduct of another for which he is criminally responsible, or both.”

The law of parties is perhaps best illustrated through an example:

Tom and Jerry are short on cash and decide to rob a bank. Tom pulls up to the bank, and waits in the car while Jerry gets the money. Several minutes later, Jerry runs out of the bank with a bag full of bills and tells Tom to “step on it!” Shortly thereafter, police stop Tom and Jerry. The officer tells Tom to exit the vehicle and says that he is under arrest for murder.

“What”!? Tom exclaims. “I just drove the car!”

Tom learns that when Jerry was inside the bank, he shot and killed a security guard. Under the law of parties, Tom is just as culpable as Jerry for the security guard’s murder. Because Tom participated in the robbery, he will be held criminally liable for the murder even though he did not pull the trigger.

Being Present vs. Being Complicit

There is a difference, however, if you have no knowledge that a crime is being committed. Refer back to the above example with Tom and Jerry. Say, for instance, that Jerry told Tom he just needed to make a deposit at the bank. Tom drops Jerry off and waits in the vehicle for him to return. But, Jerry didn’t make a deposit and decided to rob the bank.

In this scenario, it would be difficult to prove that Tom had any involvement with helping, directing, encouraging, promoting or soliciting Jerry’s crime. However, if Jerry returns to the car and tells Tom to “step on it, I just robbed the bank,” and Tom complies, he could be held liable for Jerry’s actions under the Texas law of parties.  

It is important to understand that under Texas law there are certain crimes that people have an affirmative duty to report. This generally includes felony offenses and other cases where the witness owes a special duty to the victim. Thus, you could still be held liable for a crime by simply being present and doing nothing.

Deciding someone’s culpability under the law of parties is done on an individual case-by-case basis. If you are charged under the law of parties, it is imperative that you have a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney who will force the prosecution to prove your intent beyond all reasonable doubt.

Texas Law of Parties and Punishment

Since 1976, six people in Texas have been executed after being sentenced to death under the law of parties. In each of these cases, the evidence established that the defendants did not kill anyone. Recently, in 2016, Jeffery Wood was convicted and sentenced to death even though he neither killed nor intended for anyone to be killed. According to witnesses, Wood was in a car in the parking lot and unaware that the robbery for which a codefendant killed a store clerk was going to occur.

Very few people convicted under the law of parties receive the death penalty; yet, the reality is that the getaway driver’s punishment is often proportionate to that of the trigger man. This means that if Jerry was handed down a 50 year sentence for the murder that he committed, Tom’s sentence could be equally significant.

When it comes to punishment, it is easy to see why the law of parties rule is incredibly controversial. In 2021, the Texas House of Representatives passed a bill that would end death-penalty liability under the law of parties. Unfortunately, HB 1340 failed to pass in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

Advocates for criminal justice reform are still working to retire this seemingly antiquated rule. But for now, the Texas law of parties rule is in full-swing.

If you are facing charges under the law of parties, make sure you speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney about your options. Contact me today to set up a consultation.

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