What Does "Breaking and Entering" Mean?

In most states, it's possible to commit a burglary without "breaking" anything on the way in. Some states make "breaking and entering" a separate crime.

A person commits burglary by entering a building or structure without permission in order to commit a crime inside. Traditionally, "breaking and entering" was part of the crime; it meant forcing entry into a building during a burglary. Today, in most states, no "breaking" or force is required, and any entry into a building can constitute burglary so long as the other requirements are met. For more information on burglary, see Burglary: Penalties and Sentencing and Home Invasions. Some states also make it a crime to force entry into any building or vehicle, or into certain containers, such as vaults and vending machines.

Burglary Laws Today

Historically, burglary was defined as breaking and entering into a home at night with the intent to commit a felony (a crime punishable by time in prison, as opposed to jail) inside. Today, most states laws have broadened the definition of burglary to include almost any entry into a building or structure at any time of day or night, without permission and with the intent to commit a crime inside, although a few states retain the traditional definition. For example, under the modern definition of burglary, a person who breaks into a jewelry store at night intending to steal diamonds has committed burglary. For any burglary, the intended theft (or other crime) does not actually have to occur; the burglary has been committed at the time the defendant enters into the building with the intent to commit a crime.

Under the traditional definition of burglary, in order to convict a person of burglary, the prosecution had to prove that defendant forced open a window or door (or some other part of the building) in order to enter. Under today's broader burglary laws, using any amount of force to enter a building constitutes breaking and entering. For example, raising a window that has been left partially open and crawling through it could be considered breaking and entering. A person can also enter without using any force at all. People who have walked through unlocked and open doors have been convicted of burglary, so long as the entry was made without permission and with the intent to commit a crime. Some states punish forcible entry burglaries more severely than non-forcible entry burglaries.

The Crime of Breaking and Entering

A few states retain a crime called breaking and entering, which is usually committed by forcing entry into a building that is not covered by the state's burglary statute. For example, in Massachusetts, burglary can only be committed in a dwelling (a place where a person lives or sleeps, such as a house or an apartment). Under Massachusetts's law, a person who forces entry into any other building or structure could be charged with breaking and entering.

Forcible and Unlawful Entry

Some states also make it a crime to force entry into a vehicle, a safe or a vending machine, or similar containers. For example, in some states, it may be a crime to break open a parking meter. These crimes may be called breaking and entering, unlawful entry, or forcible entry. Usually, these crimes are less serious than burglary.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you are charged with burglary or any other crime, you should meet with a local criminal defense attorney. An attorney can explain the law, answer your questions, and help you decide if you should try to get the charges dismissed, plea bargain, or go to trial. An attorney will be familiar with how cases like yours are usually handled by local judges and prosecutors and will be able to tell you what to expect in court.

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