Most states' laws impose harsh punishments on criminals who invade other people's homes, as opposed to other buildings. Lawmakers place a premium on the security 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 first with force and ask questions later.
Going into someone else's home without permission is a crime. A home invasion is often a type of burglary or trespass, depending on the circumstances.
Some states have burglary crimes specific to home invasions, while others label this offense as first-degree burglary or aggravated burglary. Regardless of what it's called, the criminal elements are generally the same.
Burglary. 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 at any time of day or night. In a sense, a home invasion burglary is a partial throwback to the common law burglary.
Home or dwelling. By its name, a home invasion must involve a residence or "dwelling." While laws vary, the legal definition of a dwelling is often broader than its everyday meaning. The law might define a dwelling as any place where people reside or sleep, such as a house, apartment, houseboat, RV, dorm room, tent, or hotel room. Some states' burglary laws apply even if the house is currently vacant but could be occupied (like a vacation home) or to homes under construction.
Intent to commit a crime inside. The crime of a home invasion burglary is complete as soon as the defendant enters, even if the intended crimes never occurs. For example, suppose a burglar lifts up an open window and enters a home, intending to steal a purse or cash. Once inside, the burglar is scared off after the alarm sounds. The defendant can still be convicted of burglary and attempted theft. Theft isn't the only intended crime that triggers burglary charges. In home invasion cases, other common intended crimes include assault, sexual assault, and criminal threats.
Unlawfully entering a person's home doesn't always rise to the level of burglary. A person's actions might be considered trespassing. Some states refer to degrees of trespass and those involving homes tend to be first-degree or aggravated offenses. Other states have separate crimes for residential trespass versus trespass of land or other buildings.
A person commits criminal trespass by entering someone else's property without the owner's permission. Unlike burglary, trespass does not generally involve the intent to commit a crime (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.
Penalties for burglary and trespass vary from state to state. But, in most states, harsher penalties apply to either crime when it involves a home versus another type of building, structure, or land.
Most burglaries start as felonies that carry the possibility of prison time. A state might have several degrees or types of burglary crimes, and home invasion typically carries the harshest penalties. Some states also distinguish between burglaries involving occupied and unoccupied homes in their penalties.
Home invasions might be punishable by up to 20 or more years in prison. A home invasion where occupants are present—especially if any harm results to an occupant—could mean a life sentence. Armed home invasions also carry severe penalties, sometimes up to life in prison. The risk of violence and injuries increase greatly if someone is home or the defendant is armed.
In most states, trespass is punished less severely than burglary. Simple trespass (such as trespassing on another's land) typically carries misdemeanor penalties. But a trespass into another's home could mean aggravated misdemeanor penalties or, sometimes, felony penalties. A convicted person could face a few years of jail time and fines.
In some cases, a person can trespass on their own property. Take, for instance, a person subject to a restraining order or protective order. That order might prohibit the person from entering their home if a protected party is living there.
Each state has different self-defense laws. However, many allow people who discover trespassers or burglars in their homes 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 force 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.
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, protect your rights, and help you present the strongest possible defense.