Demystifying the Law: Theft, Burglary & Robbery

Posted July 14, 2011 in Demystifying the Law by

Stealing is stealing, right? Not necessarily, in the eyes of the law. There are several types of crimes that involve taking something that isn’t yours. Today’s blog will demystify theft, burglary and robbery.

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Theft Defined


Theft, also known as larceny, is typically defined as the taking of property or some other thing of value (such as services) without permission of the owner and with the intention of keeping or using the thing yourself.

One of the key elements of theft is intent. When someone takes something of value, did they plan it? Suppose you’re at the airport baggage claim, grab your luggage and then get home only to discover you took someone else’s by accident. If it was a mistake and you take steps to solve the problem, you are not guilty of theft. If you accidentally take someone’s suitcase, get home and decide to keep it because you like their clothes better than your own, then you’ve committed a theft.

Examples of theft would include shoplifting or stealing cable TV services.

Burglary Defined

Burglary involves the unlawful entry into a building for the purpose of committing a crime in it. It’s a common misperception that burglary involves stealing, but that isn’t necessarily the case. The crime could be theft, but could also be arson, vandalism, rape or another criminal act. (If someone enters property illegally, but doesn’t necessarily commit another crime, he may just be guilty of criminal trespassing.)

The exact definition of burglary can vary from state to state. In some states, the crime of burglary only applies residential buildings, while in other states, burglary includes other structures, such as office buildings or tool sheds. (Understand, of course, that even if burglary in your state only applies to residential buildings, you’re still committing a crime if you break into an office building. That crime, however, will just have a different name.)

Burglary is sometimes known as housebreaking or breaking and entering.

Robbery Defined

Robbery is the crime of taking something from someone else by use of force or the threat of force. It’s known as armed robbery or aggravated robbery if a weapon is used. So stealing a victim’s purse is robbery, stealing it at gunpoint is armed robbery.

Although every crime has a victim, the key difference between theft and robbery is that no person is immediately present or threatened when committing a theft. A robbery, on the other hand, always involves taking something from another individual by force.

As with theft, intent is also a key element of robbery. A person must have specific intent to commit robbery. If he’s just borrowing property or playing a joke, it’s not robbery.

Also, the force or intimidation must be directly related to taking of property at that time for it to be robbery. It can’t be after the property is taken. There’s no robbery if the threat is for future violence, that’s another type of crime.

Understanding the Differences

To get better understand the differences between theft, burglary and robbery, imagine that you own a convenience store and work there during business hours:

  • If someone comes into your store during business hours, slips a candy bar into his pocket, then leaves, he has committed theft. He took property that wasn’t his.
  • If someone comes into the store, forces you to hand over the money in the cash register, she has committed robbery (or armed robbery if a weapon was used while committing the crime. The criminal used force to take something from someone else.
  • If someone breaks into your store while it’s closed and steals cigarettes or sets the store on fire, he has committed burglary as well as some other crimes. That’s because he illegally entered a building to commit another crime.

Do the Crime, Serve the Time (or Pay the Fine)

In last week’s column, we looked at the differences between misdemeanor and felony crimes.

Briefly, a misdemeanor is a less serious crime punishable by a fine, less than a year in jail or both a fine and jail time. A felony is a more serious crime punishable by at least a year in jail, plus possibly a fine.

Not surprisingly, the various crimes related to stealing can be either misdemeanors or felonies depending on the severity of the crime. So, for example, shoplifting items of little value would be a misdemeanor crime. Robbery, on the other hand, is almost always a felony offense.

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