In California, a person commits the crime of burglary by entering into a vehicle or building in order to commit a crime inside. Residential burglary (sometimes called home invasion) is punished more severely than burglaries involving nonresidential buildings. California also has laws against unauthorized entry or trespass (entering a residence without permission).
Historically, burglary was defined as breaking and entering into a home at night with the intent to commit a felony inside. Today, states have done away with many of these requirements and broadened the definition of burglary.
In California, a person commits burglary by entering into any building, room, store, vehicle, shipping container, or mine, without permission and with the intent to commit theft or a felony inside. For example, a person who goes into someone else’s apartment in order to steal a laptop has committed burglary.
California divides burglary into offenses of the first-degree (home invasions) and second-degree (everything else). (Cal. Penal Code §§ 458, 459, 463 (2020).)
Burglary of an “inhabited” building or vehicle constitutes first-degree burglary. “Inhabited” means currently being used for residential purposes, whether occupied or not. An inhabited building or vehicle does not need to be a person’s primary or regular residence. Vacation homes, apartments, houseboats, and RVs are all considered “inhabited” buildings or vehicles under California law. A person who commits first-degree burglary faces a felony with a state prison term of two, four, or six years. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 460, 461 (2020).)
A burglary that does not involve a “home invasion” is considered a second-degree offense and can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony (called a “wobbler” offense). A misdemeanor carries a maximum one-year jail sentence, and a felony means incarceration for 16 months, two years, or three years. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 460, 461 (2020).)
Looting. Second-degree burglary committed during a state of emergency, local emergency, or evacuation order constitutes the separate crime of looting. Looting is also a wobbler offense and carries the same penalties as second-degree burglary. (Cal. Penal Code § 463 (2020).)
Proposition 47 and Shoplifting
Proposition 47 (which took effect in 2014) reduced certain penalties for nonviolent and lower-level theft and drug offenses. In doing so, it created a new shoplifting crime that makes it a misdemeanor to enter a commercial establishment intending to commit theft involving property valued at $950 or less. Prior to enacting the new shoplifting law, these criminal acts would constitute second-degree burglary. Burglary charges still apply to acts that fall outside the shoplifting law, such as intent to steal merchandise valued at more than $950. (People v. Chen, 199 Cal. Rptr .3d 375 (Cal. Ct. App. 2016).)
California imposes enhanced penalties for a burglary involving the use of explosives. Enhanced penalties apply when a person:
A person convicted of burglary involving explosives faces a felony sentence of three, five, or seven years in prison. (Cal. Penal Code § 464 (2020).)
How do you know if the defendant intends to commit theft or some other crime? In most cases, the defendant’s intention can be established by the circumstances surrounding the burglary. For example, if police arrive at a home in response to an alarm system, just as the defendant—who doesn’t live there—loads a television into a van, a jury could probably conclude that defendant entered into the home with the intent to commit theft.
The crime of burglary occurs as soon as the defendant enters into the building or vehicle with the illicit intent, even if the intended felony or theft never occurs. For example, if the police arrive while the defendant is trying to remove the television from the wall, the defendant has still committed burglary (and attempted theft).
Under California law, a person commits the crime of unauthorized entry by entering or remaining in a residence without permission from the owner or resident. Unauthorized entry is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
If the unauthorized entry occurs while an owner or resident (or some other person with permission to be in the residence) is present, the person commits the crime of aggravated trespass. For example, a person who sneaks into someone else’s dorm room without permission while the student is sleeping in the room could be convicted of aggravated trespass. Aggravated trespass carries a maximum penalty of up to a year in county jail and a $1,000 fine. The judge can also issue a restraining order to prevent future contact by the defendant with the victim. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 19, 602.5 (2020).)
In California, it’s also a crime to possess lock picks, crowbars, screwdrivers, master keys, spark plug pieces, or any other tool or instrument with the intent to break into a building or vehicle. A person in possession of burglar tools commits a misdemeanor and faces up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. (Cal. Penal Code § 466 (2020).)
A person’s possession of burglary tools or connection to burglary tools found at a crime scene may also be considered evidence that the person committed burglary. For example, if a person is found entering someone else’s garage with a screwdriver, the defendant’s possession of the screwdriver can be used as evidence that the defendant intended to commit theft or some other crime in the garage. (People v. Darling, 210 Cal. App. 3d 910 (1989).) For more information on how even everyday items can become burglar’s tools, see Burglary Tools.
If you are charged with burglary, unauthorized entry, or a related crime, you should talk to an experienced California criminal defense attorney. An attorney can tell you what to expect in court and help you navigate the criminal justice system. With an attorney’s help, you can hopefully obtain the best possible outcome in your case, which could be an acquittal, a dismissal of the charges, a plea bargain, or a lighter sentence than the maximum allowed under law.