Differences Between Theft, Burglary and Robbery

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The crimes of theft, robbery, and burglary are commonly lumped together because most people believe they involve the unlawful taking of someone else’s property. While theft and robbery are very similar crimes that involve the taking or attempted taking of personal property, burglary is slightly different. Let’s take a look at each of these crimes, what they have in common, and how they differ.

Theft

Theft, sometimes known as larceny, petty theft, grand theft, or by similar names depending on the state in which you live and the circumstances of the crime, is one of the most commonly committed crimes. To commit a theft, you have to take someone else’s property without the owner’s consent and with the intention to permanently deprive the owner of its use or possession.

  • Property. Theft involves the taking of personal, tangible property. You can’t be convicted of theft if you, for example, try to take someone else’s land, even though other criminal charges might apply. Theft usually involves money, tangible goods, or any other physical object you can move or transport.
  • Wrongful. When you commit a theft you act against the owner’s interests. Taking an object with the owner’s permission is not theft, unless you use deceit or trickery to try to convince the owner to allow you to have control over the item. For example, if your friend gives you her bicycle because you asked to borrow it, this isn’t theft. However, it is theft if you ask to borrow the bicycle and intended not to return it.
  • Deprive. To commit a theft you must take property with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of it. However, it isn’t necessary to intend to permanently deprive the owner of the property at the time you take it. For example, in the bicycle example, above, it is theft if you borrow a bicycle and decide to keep it even if you decided not to return it only after having borrowed it. It isn’t necessary at the time you borrow it to intend to keep it or deprive the owner of it’s use.

You can read Petty Theft & Other Laws for a more detailed explanation.

Robbery

Theft is taking something that doesn’t belong to you, but a robbery is taking something from a person and using force, or the threat of force, to do it. Robbery, like theft, involves taking someone’s property without the owner’s consent, but it has some elements that theft doesn’t require.

  • Person. You cannot commit a robbery unless you take something from someone else. This includes taking property that someone else is holding, as well as taking property that is within his or her control. Property within someone else’s control includes, for example, property located in a safe that a convenient store employee can access.
  • Violence. Robbery is a violent crime, but that doesn’t mean the victim has to suffer any type of injury. It’s enough to commit a robbery if you use any type of force to take property from someone. This includes taking property if you use the threat of violence. It also includes using violence or the threat of violence to take property that is under the victim’s control, even though it isn’t necessarily in that person’s possession. For example, forcing a bank clerk to open a bank vault to take money is robbery, even though the clerk doesn’t physically possess the currency.

For more detailed explanation of robbery laws, read Nolo’s Robbery article.

Burglary

Though burglary is often a crime that involves theft, you don’t necessarily have to take any property to be convicted of this crime. To commit a burglary you must unlawfully enter a structure or dwelling with the intent to commit a crime within it. It’s enough to make such an entry without actually committing a crime within the building, and the crime you intend to commit does not have to be theft or robbery.

  • Structure. In years past, burglary crimes most often involved people breaking into someone else’s home. Today, burglary laws are much broader. You can commit burglary if you unlawfully enter into any structure with the intent to commit a crime. For purposes of burglary laws, a “structure” includes nonresidential buildings, natural formations such as caves, and even temporary structures such as tents.
  • Breaking. Some people mistakenly believe that you have to use force or violence to enter a structure in order to commit a burglary, but that isn’t the case. You can commit a burglary even if the only force you use to enter a building is pushing open a door or slightly lifting an already unlocked and open window.
  • Entry. You can be convicted of burglary even if you don’t completely enter into a structure. For example, lifting up a window and reaching your arm, or an object, through to take something from inside is enough to commit a burglary.

For a more detailed description of burglary laws, read Nolo’s Burglary Basics article.

Get Advice

You should always talk to a lawyer in your area if you ever need legal advice or information about crimes or the criminal justice process. If you believe you have committed a crime, are under investigation, or have been charged, you absolutely need to speak to a local criminal attorney as quickly as possible. Even if you believe you have done nothing wrong, speaking to investigators without first consulting an attorney can seriously damage your case.

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