Even benign items such as screwdrivers and hammers may be "burglar's tools," depending on the intentions of the person carrying them.
Many states have laws criminalizing the possession of tools to force entry into a building or break into a safe or vault, with the intent to use them to commit burglary, trespass, or theft. For more information on burglary and related crimes, see Trespassing Penalties, Burglary: Penalties and Sentencing and Home Invasions. Burglary tools are also called burglar’s tools or "burglarious" tools. Many, but not all, states have laws against burglary tools.
In many states, burglary tools are broadly defined as any tool, instrument, or other object “adapted, designed, or commonly used” to force entry into a building or commit theft. In other states, the statute contains a list of prohibited items. Under either type of statute, the key is that the tool must be possessed in order to commit burglary, theft, or trespass; or force entry into a building or container (the requirement varies depending on state law). For example, a person who possesses bolt cutters with the intent to use them to cut a padlock off of someone’s garage could be convicted of possession of burglary tools. However, locksmiths who carry tools for picking locks – with the owner’s blessing – have not committed a crime.
Possession of burglary tools may also be used as evidence when defendant is charged with burglary. For example, testimony that the defendant was found in someone else’s shed with a crowbar, with evidence showing that the lock was recently pried off, could be used by the prosecutor in the defendant’s trial for burglary of the shed.
Examples of Burglary Tools
Tools that may be considered burglary tools if they are possessed with the intent commit burglary (or a similar crime) include:
- crowbars and other prying devices
- lock picks or master keys
- bolt cutters
- ceramic spark plugs
- tools capable of burning through concrete or steel, such as torches, or
For more information on the possession of ceramic spark plugs, see Ninja Rock Crime. In some states, even items of clothing such as masks or gloves can be considered burglary tools. Some state laws allow certain professionals, such as locksmiths and law enforcement officers, to possess items that are otherwise prohibited, such as master keys. (See Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 13-1505.)
Intent to Commit a Burglary
How does a prosecutor show that the defendant possessed a tool, especially an everyday item possessed by many people, such as a screwdriver, with the intent to commit burglary or trespass? Sometimes, the defendant will confess to the intent to commit burglary. Other times, the defendant’s illicit intention will be determined by the circumstances. The prosecutor is not required to establish exactly what defendant was thinking, but often the circumstances are really only consistent with the intent to use the tool for a nefarious purpose. For example, if a person is found outside of someone else’s home with a sledgehammer, trying to break open the door, then absent some benign and credible explanation, jurors could probably conclude that the person possessed the sledgehammer with the intent to commit burglary and could convict the defendant of possession of burglary tools, and possibly attempted burglary as well.
Defendants have sometimes argued that state laws criminalizing burglary tools are too vague or are overbroad. The constitution prohibits criminal statues that are vague (so unclear that a person cannot determine what conduct is criminal) or overbroad (so vast that both criminal and non-criminal conduct are punishable under the statute). So far, few of these challenges have been successful. However, in 2013, lawmakers in West Virginia failed to enact a law criminalizing possession of burglary tools, in part due to constitutional concerns.
Possession of burglary tools may be a felony or (more often) a misdemeanor. In most states, possession of burglary tools is punishable by no more than one year in jail or prison and a fine. In some states, such as Oregon, the crime of burglary may be punished more severely if committed while the defendant is in possession of burglar's tools.
Under some state laws, such as in Georgia, tools used to commit burglary are subject to forfeiture (seizure by the state without compensation to the owner). (Ga. Code Ann. § 16-16-2.) For more information on federal forfeiture laws, see Forfeiting Property in a Federal Criminal Case.
Obtaining Legal Assistance
If you are charged with possession of burglar’s tools, you should talk to a local criminal defense attorney. A conviction can result in time in prison or jail, as well as a fine and a criminal record. The best way to avoid a criminal conviction is to work with an experienced criminal defense attorney who can help you protect your rights and obtain the best possible outcome in your case.