What Makes an Item a "Burglar's Tool?"

Even everyday, innocent items can be criminalized, depending on the intentions of those who possess them.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Almost any item that could be used to force entry into a building or pick a lock can be a burglar's tool if a person possesses the item with the intent to use it to commit burglary or some other crime. Many, but not all, states have laws against burglar's tools (also called burglary tools or burglarious tools).

Intent to Commit a Burglary

How does a prosecutor show that the defendant possessed a tool, especially an everyday tool like a hammer, with the intent to commit burglary? Sometimes, the defendant will confess. Other times, the defendant's illicit intention can be determined by the circumstances. For example, if a person is found outside a pharmacy, trying to force open a door and in the person's backpack there is a hammer, a pick, and a screwdriver, a jury or judge could reasonably conclude that the person possessed these tools with the intent to commit burglary.

For more information on how prosecutors prove intent, see "How do prosecutors prove intent in burglary cases?"

Examples of Burglary Tools

Tools that may be considered burglary tools if the jury concludes that the defendant possessed them with the intent commit burglary (or a similar crime) include:

  • crowbars and slim jims
  • lock picks
  • master keys
  • screwdrivers and hammers
  • ceramic spark plugs, and
  • torches and other tools capable of burning through concrete or steel.

In some states, even items of clothing that can be used to disguise a person or a person's fingerprints, such as masks and gloves, can be considered burglary tools.

Defining Burglary Tools

In many states, burglary tools are broadly defined as any tool, instrument, or other object "adapted, designed, or commonly used" to force entry into a building or commit theft. In other states, the statute contains a list of prohibited items. Under either type of statute, the key is that the tool must be possessed in order to commit burglary, theft, or trespass, or force entry into a building or container (the requirement varies depending on state law). For more information on burglary and related crimes, see Trespassing Penalties, Burglary: Penalties and Sentencing, and Home Invasions.

For example, a person who possesses a screwdriver with the intent to use it to break into a car could be convicted of possession of burglar tools. However, a professional welder who has an acetylene torch has not committed a crime so long as the welder does not intend to use the torch, or allow anyone else to use it, for a nefarious purpose.

Constitutional Concerns

When a criminal statute is vague (so unclear that a reasonable person would not be able to figure out what behavior is being criminalized) or overbroad (so general that both non-criminal and criminal acts will be caught in its net), courts will not enforce it. Defendants charged with possessing burglary tools have often raised one or both of these arguments, but courts have been largely unreceptive.


Possession of burglary tools may be a felony or (more often) a misdemeanor. In most states, possession of burglary tools is punishable by no more than one year in jail or prison and a fine.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you are charged with possession of burglar's tools, you should talk to a local criminal defense attorney. Any criminal conviction, even a misdemeanor conviction, can result in time in jail, a fine, and a criminal record, which can make it difficult to obtain a job. An attorney can help you protect your rights and obtain the best possible outcome under the circumstances.

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