Going into someone else’s home without permission is a crime. A home invasion is a type of burglary or, sometimes, a trespass. Although laws and details vary from state to state, in general, it involves breaking into someone else’s residence in order to commit a crime inside.
Most of the time, legislators impose harsh punishment on criminals who invade other people’s homes, as opposed to other buildings. Lawmakers place a premium on the physical integrity and privacy of people in their homes. In addition, to the extent that heavy sentences deter criminal conduct, the penalties are intended to prevent violence, because a person who comes across an intruder in the home may well respond with force and ask questions later.
A person commits the crime of burglary by entering a building without permission, with the intent to commit a crime, often theft, inside the building. Historically, burglary was restricted to “breaking and entering” (using force to enter) someone else’s home at night, but most states have done away with these requirements. Today, a person can commit burglary against a store, a house, or a school. In a sense, a home invasion burglary is a partial throw back to the original definition of a burglary. For more information on burglary, see Burglary: Penalties and Sentencing, Differences Between Theft, Burglary and Robbery, and Juvenile Theft and Burglary Laws.
The crime of a home invasion burglary is complete as soon as the defendant enters, even if the intended theft or felony never occurs. For example, suppose a burglar breaks a window and enters a home, intending to steal a television. Once inside, the burglar is scared off after the alarm sounds. The defendant can still be convicted of burglary and attempted theft.
In order to convict a person of burglary, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant entered the building with the intent to commit a felony (a crime punishable by a prison sentence) or theft. Usually, the prosecutor can rely on the circumstances surrounding the offense to show intent and does not have to prove exactly what the defendant was thinking. For example, if you come home and find a person you do not know rifling through your possessions, with a duffle bag full of your electronics and jewelry and no good explanation for why he is there, the prosecutor does not have to show the defendant’s actual thoughts. When the circumstances convince a judge or jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the person entered in order to commit a crime, they can find the defendant guilty.
However, a person who goes into a building and, after getting inside, develops the intent to commit a crime has not committed burglary. For example, a person who goes to a home for a party and then steals another guest’s phone can be convicted of theft, but not burglary, unless there is some evidence that that the defendant had the intent to steal when he or she arrived. Likewise, a person who breaks into a friend’s home in a drunken stupor, intending to curl up and go to sleep on the sofa, but then wakes up and assaults the friend, could be charged with assault, but not burglary.
In many states, home invasion burglary is a form of aggravated burglary, and is punished more severely than other burglaries. In other states, lawmakers have enacted specific laws against home invasion burglary.
A person commits criminal trespass by entering someone else’s property without the owner’s permission. Unlike burglary, trespass does not always involve the intent to commit a felony (although in some states, trespass is committed by going onto another person’s property intending to engage in unlawful behavior, such as vandalism). However, like burglary, trespass is often punished more severely when the property is a dwelling.
State laws vary, but generally a dwelling is a place where people reside or sleep, such as a house, apartment, houseboat, or hotel room. It does not matter if the doors are unlocked or even open. In some states, trespass laws do not apply to an invited guest who turns violent. Such a person could be charged and convicted of assault or battery, but not trespass, so long as the person came into the house with the resident’s permission. In other states, trespass can be committed by not only entering, but also by remaining on someone else’s property without permission.
In some states, trespass is a fairly minor offense. In other states, a trespasser who causes injury or uses or threatens force or violence can be charged with aggravated trespass. For more information, see Trespassing Penalties.
Sometimes, a home invasion, be it trespass or burglary, will be punished more severely if someone is home at the time of the crime. The reason is obvious—the risk of violence and injury go way up when there is a confrontation or the risk of one. Even if someone arrives at the home while the burglary is in progress (including a police officer), the home may be considered occupied under state law and a harsher punishment may be imposed.
People who discover trespassers or burglars in their homes are often entitled to use force. This right of defense is known as the “castle doctrine” (as in, your home is your castle). Under traditional self-defense principles, a person was entitled to use foce only if threatened with violence and when no retreat was possible. The castle doctrine is an exception to this rule, allowing people more freedom to use force against a home intruder. Under its typical version, people in their homes can “stand their ground” and use force—even enough force to kill—if they are in apparent danger of serious injury.
These days, many states apply something similar to the castle doctrine to situations outside of the home with “stand your ground” laws. These allow people to stand their ground and use force against an attacker (or perceived attacker) even when retreat is possible and the attack occurs outside of the home. For more information, see "Stand Your Ground" New Trends in Self-Defense Law.
Penalties for burglary and trespass vary from state to state. Generally, home invasion burglary is a felony, punishable by a prison sentence and a fine. Often, residential burglary is punished quite severely, and some states impose terms of life in prison for armed home invasion burglaries. In many states, trespass is punished less severely than burglary. If anything is taken or damaged during a burglary or trespass, the court may also order the defendant to pay restitution to the victim for the loss incurred as a result of the crime.
If you are charged with burglary, trespass, or any other crime, consult with a local criminal defense attorney. An attorney can explain the law in your state and help you understand the possible penalties you face if convicted. An attorney will investigate the matter and help you present the strongest possible defense, so that you can achieve the best possible outcome under the circumstances. An experienced criminal defense attorney will help you protect your rights.