In most states, the vast majorities of burglaries are felonies. A felony is a crime punishable by incarceration in state prison, as opposed to a misdemeanor, which is punishable by time in county or local jail.
A person commits the crime of burglary by entering a building without permission and 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 with the intent to commit a felony inside. But most states have done away with these narrow requirements.
Today, a person can commit burglary against almost any kind of building or structure, such as a store or a warehouse. However, in many states, burglaries of dwellings are punished more severely than burglaries of other structures. For more information on home invasion burglary and related crimes, see Trespassing Penalties, Burglary: Penalties and Sentencing, Home Invasions, Differences Between Theft, Burglary, and Robbery, and Juvenile Theft and Burglary Laws.
In order to be convicted of burglary, the prosecutor must show that the defendant entered the building with the intent to commit a crime. In some states, the prosecutor must show that the defendant intended to commit theft (even a misdemeanor theft) or a felony. In these states, a defendant who unlawfully enters a building with the intent to commit a crime other than theft or a felony, such as misdemeanor vandalism, could not be convicted of burglary (although other criminal charges might apply).
The most serious burglaries, such as home invasion burglaries and armed burglaries, can result in very long prison sentences, often carrying possible punishments of up to 25 years in prison or even life imprisonment.
Burglaries of buildings other than dwellings, in which the defendant is not armed and no one is injured, often carry less severe penalties. Such burglaries may be punishable by as little as a year or two in state prison and a fine. In some states, non-violent burglaries may be misdemeanors, punishable by up to a year in county or local jail and a fine. In other states, these simple burglaries may be “wobblers,” crimes that may be charged misdemeanors or felonies, depending on how the crime is charged and, sometimes, how the judge or jury decides to treat a conviction.
If you are charged with burglary, you should definitely meet with a local criminal defense attorney. An experienced attorney will be familiar with the law in your state and can tell you how similar cases tend to fare in court, depending on the facts and the assigned judge and prosecutor. An attorney can help you protect your rights and obtain the best possible outcome under the circumstances.