Differences Between Theft, Burglary, and Robbery

Often confused, theft, robbery, and burglary share some similarities but are very different crimes.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 3/12/2024

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. While this is true in the case of theft and robbery, burglary is slightly different. Let's take a look at each of these crimes—what they have in common and how they differ.

Theft vs. Robbery

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 and stealing a bike are examples of theft.

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 likely 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.

Burglary vs. Robbery

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 to be convicted; it's the intent that counts. So if the burglar enters the home intending to steal whatever can fit in a backpack and gets scared off by an alarm, a burglary has still been committed.

Now suppose someone was home at the time of the burglary. The burglar demands that the person hand over the earrings and necklace they're wearing. In this case, the burglar has committed robbery by stealing property from a person by force. A prosecutor could likely get convictions for both burglary and robbery.

Theft vs. Burglary

As you can see from the above examples, theft and burglary sometimes go hand in hand but not always.

A theft involves unlawfully taking another's property and intending to deprive them of it permanently. Burglary can involve theft but doesn't need to. A person commits burglary by unlawfully entering a structure or dwelling with the intent of committing a crime. If that crime is theft and the burglar completes the intended crime, the burglar can be charged with both burglary and theft.

Another situation where theft and burglary may coincide involves stealing items after being invited into a property. Suppose a person is invited to a party at someone's home or attends an open house. If the person sees a nice watch on the table and decides to snatch it, they've committed theft (not burglary). Why? Because they didn't enter the house unlawfully or with the intent to commit a crime, which are both required for a burglary conviction (unless, of course, that was their plan all along).

Penalties for Theft, Robbery, and Burglary

Out of these related crimes, theft 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 a crime against a person, property, or both.

Theft Penalties

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 stealing a vehicle 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 Penalties

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.

Burglary Penalties

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).

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