Robbery is the taking of something of value from another person using force or violence or the threat of force or violence. In the movies and on television, robbers are professional criminals, pointing assault weapons at bank tellers and carjacking people at gunpoint. However, under most state’s laws, robbery can include both these sorts of crimes, as well as behavior that many people would consider much less serious. For example, a person who shoves a college student walking home from a bar and steals the student’s cell phone out of his or her hand has committed robbery. So has a seventh grader who threatens other students on the playground with beatings if they do not give up their milk money.
What Defines Robbery?
What sets robbery apart from mere stealing (theft) is that the robber:
- takes something from the victim’s “person or presence,” and
- uses force or violence.
Person or presence. Taking something from the victim’s person or presence just means that the victim is there when the robbery occurs. So, physically taking an object out of the victim’s hands can constitute robbery. The robbery occurs in the victim’s presence if the person who controls the property is nearby when the theft occurs. So, a person who steals a wallet out of a woman’s purse hanging on the back of her seat in a restaurant steals from the victim’s presence. A person who locks a store clerk in the backroom in order to steal from the cash register also takes something from the victim’s presence. But, a person who steals a bike from someone’s front porch when no one is home has not stolen from the victim’s person or presence, and therefore has not committed robbery, only theft.
Force or violence. Robbery is also distinct from theft because the defendant must use or threaten force or violence. Knocking a person down or pulling something out of someone’s hands are both examples of force. While state law varies, the following may be considered using force or violence:
- using any physical force against the victim, such as striking or kicking
- snatching the property away
- threatening or coercing the victim, or
- placing the victim in fear of serious and immediate bodily injury.
The threat does not have to be stated explicitly. For example, it could be considered force or violence for a person to motion to his pocket as though he is carrying a gun.
In many states, robbery is divided into categories (such as first degree and second degree or aggravated and simple), depending on the seriousness of the offense. Or, different types of robbery may be set forth in different statutes. More serious types of robbery might include:
- robberies committed inside residences (sometimes called home invasion robberies)
- carjackings (taking a vehicle from the driver by force or violence)
- robberies committed against certain classes of people -- such as taxicab drivers or people using ATMs, or
- robberies committed using deadly weapons, such as guns or knives (sometimes called armed robbery).
Both objects designed to be used as weapons, such as clubs, and everyday objects that are used in a way that could seriously hurt someone, such as a brick used to hit a person in the head, can be considered deadly weapons in most states. Sometimes, robberies committed by people who are armed with firearms are punished more severely than robberies committed by people armed with other deadly weapons.
For more information on robbery using weapons, see Armed Robbery: Laws and Penalties.
All types of robberies are serious crimes. Robbery is almost always a felony, punishable by at least one year in prison, regardless of the value of the items taken. Most states punish aggravated robbery, including armed robbery, carjacking, and home invasion robbery, quite harshly. Sentences of ten or 20 years in prison or more are not uncommon.
Learn more about how crimes are punished in your state.
Obtaining Legal Assistance
If you are charged with robbery, no matter what type, you should talk to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. An attorney can explain the legal process to you and determine the best course of action to follow depending on the charges against you, the law in your state, and how your case is likely to be treated by the local judge and prosecutor. An attorney can tell you if you are in a good position to get the charges reduced or dismissed, obtain a good plea bargain, or go to trial. With an attorney’s help, you can protect your rights and hopefully obtain the best possible outcome in your case.