The crimes of theft (larceny), robbery, and burglary are commonly lumped together because most people believe they involve the unlawful taking of someone else's property. Theft and larceny are sometimes used interchangeably, and they share a similarity with robbery in that they all 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 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 intent of permanently depriving the owner of its use or possession. Shoplifting is an example of theft.
Some states use the term larceny rather than theft. Others reference larceny as a subset of theft that involves only acts of stealing and carrying away another's property (like stealing a bike). In these states, theft might be an umbrella term covering all types of unlawful takings, such as larceny, embezzlement, and theft of services.
Robbery, like theft, involves taking someone's property without the owner's consent, but robbery 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.
For instance, say a person corners a woman on the street and demands that she "hand over her diamond ring or else." That person robbed the woman by using a threat of harm to steal her ring. Had the same person snatched the ring discreetly from a counter, the crime committed would have been theft. Carjacking is another example of robbery—stealing a car by force. But if the person stole a parked car (with no one inside or near it), the crime would be auto theft.
People often confuse robbery and burglary. Think of the scenario where a homeowner comes home to find their door lock broken and all their electronics and jewelry stolen. Most often, the person will say they've been "robbed," but actually, they've been burglarized.
A person commits burglary by breaking and entering a structure or dwelling with the intent to commit a crime inside. Often the intended crime is theft, but it could also be sexual assault, battery, robbery, or another crime (some states require the intended crime to be a felony). The burglar doesn't need to complete the intended crime; it's the intent that counts. Another common misconception is that burglary requires a physical breaking. However, under the law, a person could push open an unlocked window and reach in, hoping to steal a diamond ring sitting on the bedside table. The act of opening the window and reaching in completes the breaking and entering. Along with the intent to steal the ring, the burglary is complete.
Out of these related crimes, theft (or larceny) generally carries the lowest penalties, as it's a crime against property. Because robbery involves stealing something from a person, many states consider it a violent crime that almost always carries stiff felony penalties. Burglary tends to fall somewhere in between as it can be either a crime against a person or property.
A person convicted of theft might face misdemeanor or felony penalties, depending on the value or type of property stolen. For instance, stealing a $300 pair of sunglasses might carry a misdemeanor penalty (petty theft), whereas embezzling thousands of dollars will likely be a felony (grand theft).
In many states, a misdemeanor comes with the possibility of up to a year in jail and fines. Felonies can range anywhere from a year or more in prison. And theft almost always results in a restitution order (an order to pay the victim for their losses).
Robbery convictions tend to carry stiff felony penalties involving 10- to 30-year prison sentences (sometimes more). States impose the harshest penalties when the robber uses or threatens to use a deadly weapon or firearm—called armed robbery. In many states, it doesn't matter if the threat involves a real weapon or not. A defendant who uses a fake gun will face the same penalties as someone who uses a real gun.
In most states, burglary carries a range of felony penalties that increase in severity as the level of possible harm increases. State law might impose up to a 10-year prison sentence for burglarizing an unoccupied non-residential structure. But if the person enters an occupied residence (home invasion), that penalty could bump up to 20 or 30 years' incarceration and even more if the person is armed (as now it's become a crime of violence).
If you're being investigated or charged with a crime, speak to a criminal defense attorney right away. A lawyer can help you understand the criminal justice system and discuss your options and any possible defenses.