Armed Robbery: Laws and Penalties

A person convicted of armed robbery faces serious prison time.

By , Attorney · Santa Clara University School of Law
Updated December 12, 2022

A person commits armed robbery by stealing property from someone else using violence or intimidation and while carrying a dangerous weapon.

In most states, "armed robbery" is not a distinct crime. Instead, defendants are charged with a type of robbery known as "first-degree robbery" or "aggravated robbery." Using a dangerous weapon constitutes an aggravating factor, which makes the crime more serious than simple robbery, which doesn't involve a weapon.

Defining and Proving Armed Robbery

Armed robbery involves multiple elements. A prosecutor must generally prove all the elements of theft—taking and carrying away another's property intending to permanently deprive the owner of the property—plus that the defendant stole from a victim's person or presence, used or threatened violence or intimidation, and used a dangerous weapon.

The prosecution must prove every element of the crime for a conviction. Unless the jury finds beyond a reasonable doubt that each element has been proven, they must acquit the defendant (find the defendant not guilty). Let's dive into the elements.

Taking Property From Another Person

Robbery begins when someone takes personal property that someone else possesses, without the person's consent. The victim need not actually own the item taken; it's enough that he has mere possession. For example, forcefully taking a library book from someone would qualify, even though the victim doesn't own the book.

Taking Property From Another's Person or Presence

Unlike simple theft (like taking an item from a store), robbery involves taking something from a person. This includes not only taking something from one's physical grasp or control but also taking something from someone's presence.

Items that are within a person's presence are close to the victim and within their control. For instance, locking a clerk in a storeroom after forcing the clerk to open the safe would constitute robbery, because the safe was under the clerk's control. Put another way: The money in the safe was within the clerk's control in that he could have prevented the taking but for the robber's threats or violence.

Some states, however, don't require that the item be taken from the person or his presence. In these states, the use of violence or threats in conjunction with a theft will suffice.

Carrying Away the Property

The law requires that the defendant actually carry the property away, even slightly. Sometimes, merely exercising control over the item taken will suffice. For instance, intending to take a camera, a thief places his hands on the case that hangs from the victim's shoulder. Although he is stopped before he could move it, in most states, this act would suffice for "control."

Intending to Permanently Deprive the Possessor

The person who has taken another's property must have intended at the time to permanently deprive the victim of that property. Taking something with the intent of using it in a way that creates a high likelihood that it will be permanently lost is also sufficient. For example, taking a cell phone with the intent of using it and abandoning it creates a substantial risk that it will never be returned.

Taking by Violence or Intimidation

Taking someone's property is robbery when any amount of force is used to obtain it. Pushing someone down, hitting someone, wresting something from the victim's grasp are all examples of violence. There need not be a lot of force—a light shove or the snapping of a purse strap will do.

Robbery can also be accomplished by intimidating someone—placing someone in fear. But in some states, that fear must be reasonable—the response of any ordinary person in the position of the victim. Other states will count a victim's unreasonable response (the response of someone unusually susceptible to threats), as long as it was triggered by the defendant's actions.

Traditionally, the threat needed to be imminent and one of serious injury, death, or destruction to a victim's home. For example, threatening to harm the victim's family member in six months is not imminent enough to qualify as a threat.

Involving a Dangerous Weapon

As explained above, "armed robbery" is usually charged as aggravated robbery, which requires the use of a deadly or dangerous weapon.

There's little debate whether a functioning firearm qualifies as a deadly or dangerous weapon. But other objects can qualify, as long as they are inherently deadly or, if not, used in a manner that causes or is likely to cause serious physical injury or death. Many debates surround items like stationary objects, canes, animals, parts of the human body, and vehicles.

Using or Carrying a Dangerous Weapon

The final element of armed robbery involves using the deadly or dangerous weapon. A defendant clearly does so when he hits the victim or fires a gun, but he also does so when he exhibits or carries the weapon and threatens to use it.

Defenses to Armed Robbery

A common defense to armed robbery is mistaken identity. Some states may allow a claim that a defendant can't commit robbery by stealing his own property.

It wasn't me. Those who are charged with armed robbery always have available the defense of "mistaken identity"—that a robbery may have occurred, but the defendant didn't do it. Sometimes the defendant can present an alibi to establish the defendant was in fact somewhere else when the robbery was committed.

That's my property. Some states may allow a claim by the defendant that he was taking only what was his. Technically, because robbery requires taking the property of another with the intent to permanently deprive that person of it (see above), if the defendant was retaking what was his, the prosecution would not be able to prove this element of the offense. But most states will not entertain this defense, on the grounds that it encourages dangerous self-help measures that all too often lead to injuries and worse.

Punishments for Armed Robbery

Robbery is a felony crime, regardless of the value of the items taken. Most states punish aggravated robbery, which involves dangerous or deadly weapons, including firearms, quite harshly. A convicted defendant could easily face 20 years or more in prison.

Get Legal Help for Armed Robbery Charges

As with any felony charge, it is essential to consult with a criminal defense attorney as early as possible in the case. An experienced defense attorney will be able to help you understand the charges against you and the weight of the evidence the prosecution intends to produce. A good attorney will be able to realistically assess your chances at dismissed or reduced charges, a plea bargain, or the likely consequences should you go to trial as charged. Only someone who is familiar with how the prosecutors and judges in your courthouse approach cases like yours will be able to give you this essential information.

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