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. Theft and robbery are similar in that they both involve the taking or attempted taking of personal property, but burglary is slightly different. Let’s take a look at each of these crimes—what they have in common and how they differ.
Theft or Larceny
Theft is one of the most commonly committed crimes. To commit theft, a person must take someone else’s property without the owner’s consent and with the intention to permanently deprive the owner of its use or possession. Shoplifting is an example of theft. Depending on the state where the crime occurred, theft might be referred to as larceny. Some states divide theft penalties into petty theft and grand theft, while others classify theft offenses by degrees (such as first- through fourth-degrees).
- Property. Theft involves the taking of personal property, tangible or intangible. Often, the crime involves money, physical goods, or any other movable object, but some states have expanded theft offenses to include stealing intangible property (such as interest in stock).
- Wrongful. When committing theft, the thief acts against the owner’s interests. Taking an object with the owner’s permission is not theft unless the person uses deceit or trickery to gain 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 intend not to return it.
- Deprive. To commit a theft, the person must take property with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of it, at the time of taking. A permanent deprivation means not intending to return the property ever or for such an extended period of time that it loses its value to the owner.
Robbery, like theft, involves taking someone’s property without the owner’s consent, but it has some elements that theft doesn’t require. Robbery involves taking property from a person and using force, or the threat of force, to do it.
- Person. A person can only commit robbery by taking something from someone else. This includes taking property that someone else is holding or has on their person (like money or a diamond ring), as well as taking property that is within the victim's control. Property within someone else’s control includes, for example, property located in a safe that a convenience store employee can access. Forcing a driver and passengers out of a vehicle under their control is another form of robbery, sometimes referred to as carjacking.
- Violence. States consider robbery a crime of violence, but that doesn’t mean the victim has to suffer any type of physical injury. It’s enough to commit robbery if you use any type of force or threat of force to take property from someone's person or under their control (like in the store safe example).
For a more detailed explanation of robbery laws, read our article Types of Robbery Charges: Varying Felony Classes.
Though burglary can involve theft, one doesn’t necessarily have to take any property to be convicted of this crime. To commit burglary, a person must break and enter a structure or dwelling with the intent to commit a crime inside.
- Structure. In past years, burglary crimes most often targeted breaking into someone else’s home or dwelling. Today, burglary laws are much broader. A person can commit burglary by unlawfully entering any structure, building, and sometimes a conveyance (like a vehicle) with the intent to commit a crime inside. For purposes of burglary laws, a “structure” generally includes nonresidential buildings, offices, sheds, places of worship, warehouses, trailers, and even temporary structures such as tents.
- Breaking. Some people mistakenly believe a destructive or forceful breaking (like busting a door jam or window) must occur in order to be charged with burglary, but that isn’t the case. A person can commit a burglary even if the only force used to enter a building is pushing open a door or slightly lifting an already unlocked and open window.
- Entry. Also, a person can be convicted of burglary even if they don’t completely enter into a structure. For example, lifting up a window and extending an arm, or an object, to take something from inside is enough to commit a burglary.
- Intent to commit a crime. A person can be convicted of burglary even without actually committing the intended crime. The prosecutor need only show the intent existed at the time the unlawful entry occurred. Usually, the prosecutor can prove intent using circumstantial evidence, such as the police find a person using a crowbar to open a back door and holding a bag filled with duct tape, rope, and a gun. Also, the intended crime doesn't need to be theft or robbery; for example, the person might break into a house intending to assault or harass the occupants.
Get Advice From a Lawyer
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 think you have committed a crime, are under investigation, or have been charged, you absolutely need to speak to a local criminal defense 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.