BURGLARY & ROBBERY
The crime of burglary involves the unlawful entry into a building, coupled with the intent to commit a certain crime — like theft or larceny, or any crime that’s classified as a felony.
The criminal statutes on the books in each state provide their own specific definition of what constitutes burglary. These definitions have evolved over the years. In the past, some jurisdictions limited burglary to a breaking and entering that occurred in the nighttime hours, for example. Read on to learn how burglary is defined nowadays and to see real-world examples of burglary.
Legal Definition of Burglary
Although the specific language in criminal statutes defining burglary may be a little different from state to state, a burglary typically occurs when a culprit:
a) breaks into and
c) a building
d) without consent, and
e) with the intent to commit a felony or to steal property, even if the theft itself would only be a misdemeanor.
What distinguishes the felony of burglary from less serious misdemeanors such as trespassing is that, with burglary, the prosecution has to prove that a defendant intended to commit a felony (not necessarily involving stealing) or a theft inside a building — at the very moment the defendant entered.
Degrees of burglary exist in some jurisdictions. The danger of physical injury is greatest when a burglar enters an inhabited building so, in many states, this constitutes first-degree burglary. Under some statutes, entry at night rather than in the daytime also constitutes a first-degree burglary, regardless of whether a building is inhabited.
Burglary: Case Example 1
Facts: Phil O’Nee is charged with burglary. The prosecution claims that Phil, wanting a birthday present for his girlfriend, went into a drugstore and took a bottle of perfume from the cosmetics area. Phil admits taking the perfume and asks the judge to convict him only of petty theft, a misdemeanor.
Verdict: Phil will be convicted of burglary if the prosecution proves that Phil intended to steal the perfume at the moment he entered the drugstore. One way the prosecution might prove Phil’s intent to steal is to show that Phil told a friend ahead of time that Phil planned to steal the perfume. Another way the prosecution might prove Phil’s intent to steal is to show that Phil went into the drugstore carrying a large sack in which he could conceal the perfume bottle.
The “Breaking and Entering” and “Building” Requirements
Years ago burglary laws were more rigid, and they required the government to prove that a defendant forced open a door, a window, or some other part of a building to gain entry. Now, going into a building without consent through an open window or an unlocked door constitutes a break and entry for purposes of almost all burglary statutes. Even a partial entry can constitute a burglary. For example, assume that the police arrest a suspect just as the suspect reaches her arm through an open window. If the other requirements are met, one arm in is sufficient entry to constitute a burglary.
Similarly, in early days, the burglary laws applied only to homes — and then only if the burglary occurred at night. Burglary laws now extend to almost all kinds of structures, even portable ones like cars, boats, and mobile homes. Shops, barns, stables, and outhouses are some of the other structures covered by modern burglary laws.
Intent to Commit Any Felony Will Often Do
The word “burglary” probably calls to mind a masked crook with a sack breaking into a residence and stealing personal property. In reality, the crime of burglary is broader than that. Entry into a building with the specific intent to commit any type of felony crime often satisfies burglary laws. For instance, a suspect may enter a building with the intent to burn it down or molest a child. Both are sufficient for burglary. This is why chronic petty thieves often end up with burglary convictions. By following their usual M.O. (modus operandi, or method of committing the crime), they make it easy for prosecutors to prove that they entered a shop with the intent to steal. (Learn more about common theft in Nolo’s article Theft and Shoplifting.)
As long as a person enters a building intending to commit a crime, it’s still a burglary even if the person is arrested or scared off before the crime can take place. With burglary, the key moment is the burglar’s entrance into a building. If, at that moment, the burglar intends to commit a felony or steal property inside the building, a burglary has taken place even if no other crime actually takes place. On the other hand, it may constitute some other crime — but not burglary — if a culprit first decides to commit a crime only after entering a building.
Burglary: Case Example 2
Facts: Klaus Santo enters the home of his ex-wife Wilma by climbing down the inside of a chimney. Santo has previously threatened to harm his wife, and he has a tire iron protruding from his back pocket. Wilma hears Santo coming, runs to a neighbor’s house, and calls the police. The police arrest Santo as he tries to run away through the back door.
Verdict: Santo has committed burglary. Santo entered Wilma’s house without consent. The prior threats and the tire iron in his back pocket are circumstantial evidence showing that at the moment Santo entered her house, he intended to attack Wilma with a deadly weapon.
Now, assume that Santo offers evidence at trial that, at the time he came down Wilma’s chimney, he’d been drinking heavily for three days and was too drunk to understand what he was doing. In some states, Santo’s evidence would constitute a partial defense to a burglary charge. To be convicted of burglary, Santo must have had a specific intent to commit a felony. Some states would allow Santo to claim that he was so intoxicated that he was unable to form the required specific intent. The defense would be a partial one because Santo could still be convicted of the lesser crime of breaking into Wilma’s home. (For more on common defenses to crimes, see Nolo’s article Defenses to Criminal Charges.)
The crime of robbery occurs when the offender uses violence or threats of physical harm to take property from the victim. Read on to learn more about robbery and how robbery differs from theft and burglary. This article also provides examples of robbery cases and a sample criminal statute on robbery.
What Is Robbery?
Robbery is a crime that involves both theft and violence — or at least the threat of violence. Unlike burglary, which usually occurs outside the victim’s presence or awareness, robbery involves the offender’s immediate use of force or fear to take personal property directly from the victim. (To learn more about burglary, see Nolo’s article Burglary Basics.) A classic example of robbery involves the holdup of a convenience store. A robber pulls a gun (thus using force or fear, even if the gun is unloaded or is actually just a toy gun) and demands money from the clerk. Purse-snatching can also constitute robbery if the victim is confronted by the robber.
Criminal statutes that cover robbery often define the crime differently (first degree, second degree) depending on the seriousness of the offense and other circumstances. In some states, first degree robbery consists of a robbery committed inside a residence or against certain classes of people — such as taxicab drivers or passengers. Robberies where no deadly weapon is wielded (i.e. a gun or knife) might be considered second degree robberies. And when a dangerous or deadly weapon is used to carry out a robbery, some states’ laws carry a separate “armed robbery” classification which comes with harsher punishment.
Robbery: Case Examples
Example 1. Opper Tunist comes upon a person who is lying on the pavement, apparently passed out from the effects of alcohol. Seeing no one else around, Opper removes the wallet from the sleeper’s pocket and runs away. So has Opper committed a robbery? The answer is no, since Opper didn’t use means of force or fear. Opper did, however, commit the crime of theft — by taking the sleeper’s property without permission.
Example 2. Cal Lechter accosts Cora Spondent outside a baseball card show, believing that Cora just bought the Puddinhead Jones card that Lechter wants for his collection. Lechter points a gun at Cora and says, “Give me the cards you just bought.” Cora complies. Lechter flips through the cards, then asks, “Where’s the Puddinhead Jones card?” Cora replies, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t have it.” Lechter then throws the cards to the ground in disgust and runs off. Lechter did not actually take any of Cora’s cards, but could Lechter still be convicted of robbery? Probably. Lechter took property (Cora’s cards) using force or fear, and the circumstances suggest that at the time Lechter took the cards, he intended to permanently deprive Cora of the Puddinhead Jones card, had Cora purchased it.
Robbery: Proving the Intent Requirement
Robbery is a type of theft crime, and as is often true with theft crimes, the government has to prove that a robber took property with the intent to forever deprive the victim of the stolen property. Learn more about theft in Nolo’s article Theft and Shoplifting Crimes.
A prosecutor typically relies on circumstantial evidence to prove intent in robbery cases, rather than trying to prove intent directly. In other words, a prosecutor asks a judge or jury to use common sense to infer a thief’s intent from the circumstances under which the property was stolen.
Punishment for Robbery
The elements of physical force and fear mean robbery is considered a serious crime (even when compared with other theft offenses), making it a felony in all jurisdictions, punishable by more than one year in prison. Usually, sentences handed down after a robbery conviction end up being much longer than one year, especially in cases involving armed robbery or robberies where a victim suffered harm or injury. To learn more about punishments and sentences in criminal cases, check out Nolo’s How Criminal Sentencing Works FAQ.
Robbery: State Law Example
To better understand how robbery is defined, and to see examples of first degree and second degree robbery, check out this excerpt from the Florida Statutes (Section 812.13) on robbery:
(1) “Robbery” means the taking of money or other property which may be the subject of larceny from the person or custody of another, with intent to either permanently or temporarily deprive the person or the owner of the money or other property, when in the course of the taking there is the use of force, violence, assault, or putting in fear.
(2)(a) If in the course of committing the robbery the offender carried a firearm or other deadly weapon, then the robbery is a felony of the first degree, punishable by imprisonment for a term of years not exceeding life imprisonment or as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
(b) If in the course of committing the robbery the offender carried a weapon, then the robbery is a felony of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
(c) If in the course of committing the robbery the offender carried no firearm, deadly weapon, or other weapon, then the robbery is a felony of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
(3)(a) An act shall be deemed “in the course of committing the robbery” if it occurs in an attempt to commit robbery or in flight after the attempt or commission.
(b) An act shall be deemed “in the course of the taking” if it occurs either prior to, contemporaneous with, or subsequent to the taking of the property and if it and the act of taking constitute a continuous series of acts or events.