Theft. Larceny. Burglary. Robbery. Extortion.
These words come up a lot in the home security world—and if you watch as much television as I do, you’ve probably heard these terms thrown around courtroom scenes on crime shows as well. You know they all essentially mean “stealing,” but unless you’re a lawyer or a police officer yourself, you may not know which term applies to which situation.
Being curious about the legal nuances of property crime, I decided to do some of my own research. Federal and state agencies, such as the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the FBI, and state judicial offices, provided legal definitions and statistical context. Law encyclopedias and individual law offices were also helpful for explaining the legalese and providing examples of real-life applications. I’ve used my findings to put together this guide to property crimes and the differences among them.
Property crime at a glance
These are legal terms with layers upon layers of nuance and conditions, which we’ll get to in a bit. But first, here’s the quick and dirty differentiation of these words. All of these terms are considered serious crimes in every state, often prosecuted with hefty fines and lengthy prison sentences.
- Theft is any time a person takes something that does not belong to them. These are all types of theft.
- Larceny is when items are taken by stealth but without breaking and entering.
- When someone breaks and enters and steals something, it’s burglary.
- If another person (other than an accomplice) happens to be present when the burglar steals, the crime becomes robbery.
- Extortion is a broad type of theft that relies on threats to a person, their loved ones, or their property.
- Under the umbrella of extortion, blackmail is a threat to reveal sensitive or damning information instead of physical threats.
- Bribery is closely related, but involves some illegal exchange of money for a service.
Theft is a broad term that covers any instance in which one party takes something from another party without intending to return it. For the purposes of prosecution, theft crimes are classified based on the type of property taken, the value of property stolen, and the perpetrator’s method of acquisition.
Property theft, which is the larger legal category that this article addresses, occurs when a perpetrator takes material items from the owner. Financial theft, or “white collar” theft covers less tangible theft, such as embezzlement, insurance fraud, or forgery.
Petty theft is the term used for property theft involving stolen property valued at less than $500 to $1,000 (depending on the state) and is usually prosecuted as a misdemeanor. A misdemeanor is punishable by community service, probation, fines, and up to 12 months in jail.
Grand theft refers to crimes involving larger dollar values (above $500 to $1,000, depending on the state) and are usually prosecuted as felonies. A felony is punishable by a year or more in prison.
A theft crime becomes more heavily punished when it involves the use of force or even the threatened use of force, and becomes more serious still when a lethal weapon, such as a gun or a knife, is used.
When the stolen items are taken using stealth and without contact, it’s larceny. Larceny and theft are often used interchangeably, even in legal definitions: The Bureau of Justice Statistics defines larceny/theft as “completed or attempted theft of property or cash without personal contact.” Larceny/theft in a home occurs when the perpetrator does have a legal right to be in the house, such as a maid, delivery person, or guest. Without that legal right to be present in the house, the incident would be considered burglary.
Some examples of larceny include shoplifting, pocket-picking, stealing vehicles, or stealing bicycles.
In Toy Story 2, Al commits larceny when he steals Woody from the garage sale. Even though he does talk to Andy’s mom beforehand, the chicken man ultimately uses stealth to take the beloved cowboy doll, making the crime larceny.
Legally speaking, for completed larceny to have taken place, the objects in question have to have been moved some distance by the perpetrator. For example, if a car is broken into and hotwired, but never moved, the crime would be classified as “attempted larceny.” (Carjacking, on the other hand, is a form of robbery, because the car is forcibly taken from the driver).
For a theft to be considered larceny, it also must have been done with “specific intent” to not return the stolen items to their owner. For example, if at the airport baggage claim you mistakenly grab a bag that looks like yours but actually belongs to someone else, you would have a valid defense against larceny because specific intent was absent from the act.
Like the classifications for theft, larceny is prosecuted as either petty (sometimes “petit”) larceny or grand larceny. There is some variance by state in the monetary value distinction between the two types, but in most states, grand larceny starts at $1000. New York is a good example of this. Here’s how that state defines larceny:
- Petit larceny is when property valued under $1,000 is stolen. It’s a class A misdemeanor, with a 1 year maximum sentence and maximum $1,000 fine.
- Grand larceny is when property valued over $1,000 is stolen, or if the property is a credit/debit card, motor vehicle, or a firearm. It’s a class E felony, with a maximum sentence of 4 years and a maximum fine of $5,000 or double the value of the stolen property.
Grand larceny in New York is further broken into three categories:
- Grand larceny in the first degree is when property valued over $1,000,000 is stolen. It’s a class B felony, with a maximum sentence of 25 years and a maximum fine of $30,000.
- Grand larceny in the second degree is when property valued over $50,000 is stolen, or if the property is attained through extortion. It’s a class C felony, with a maximum sentence of 15 years and a maximum $15,000 fine.
- Grand larceny in the third degree is when property valued over $3,000 is stolen, or if the property is an ATM or its contents. It’s a class D felony, with a maximum sentence of 7 years and a maximum $5,000 fine, or double the value of the stolen property.
According to common law, which is the centuries-old English tradition from which US law descends, burglary used to mean “[t]he breaking and entering into the dwelling of another at night with the intent to commit a felony therein.”
As US courts have matured and formalized, the modern definition of burglary has expanded to include unlawfully entering (with or without breaking) any structure (not just a home) at any time (day or night). As the Bureau of Justice Statistics explains, burglary is “unlawful or forcible entry or attempted entry of a residence.” This entry is most often, but not always, made with the intent of stealing, but it does include the intent to commit some type of felony. Whether or not this entry is made “by force,” such as breaking a window or slashing a screen, or simply by walking into a structure without legal right, it’s considered burglary.
“Residence” is the word you’ll usually see used to describe the structure that’s been entered in cases of household burglary. This doesn’t have to be just a house or an apartment. It can also be another structure on the property, such as a garage or shed, or even a hotel room or vacation home, so long as the victims were staying there at the time of the entry. In addition to households, burglary can be committed against a place of business, a school, or another institution as well.
Breaking in this legal sense is not the same as our normal usage of the verb. It certainly can be slashing screens or breaking windows, but the legal definition includes any situation in which “the defendant needs to create an opening that was not there before,” so even pushing open a closed door would be considered “breaking.”
A person can be prosecuted for burglary on the basis of intent to commit a crime even if they’re unsuccessful in their attempt. For example, if you came home to a stranger removing your TV from the wall but they stop before getting through the door, their unlawful presence and their suspicious actions would likely be enough evidence to press charges for intended burglary.
Both forcible entry and attempted forcible entry are forms of burglary. This could be breaking in to—or attempting to break in to—a structure by use of destructive or forceful means, such as cutting a lock, breaking a window, or slashing a screen.
Even if no force is used, simply entering a structure without legal right—called unlawful entry without force—can be prosecuted as burglary as well. Unlawful entry without force is similar to trespassing, except trespassing is specific to unlawful presence on a piece of land (and doesn’t always involve intent to commit another crime), as opposed to unlawful entry into a structure. So someone can trespass on your lawn, but if they entered your house, it would be burglary.
If you’re a renter, you have what’s called right of habitation. If the owner of an apartment uses their key to enter the apartment and steal from their renter, it’s still burglary because the owner surrendered right of habitation when they rented the space to another person.
A burglar may be charged with one of two types of entry: actual or constructive. There usually aren’t major differences in how these are tried, but it’s important to know that it’s still burglary, whether or not the perpetrator physically enters the building.
Actual entry is when any part of a person’s body enters the building, even a hand through a window. If a person uses a tool to enter the structure with the intent of using the tool to commit a crime—such as sticking a claw tool through a window to grab and steam an item—but the person does not physically enter the structure themselves, that still constitutes actual entry.
Constructive entry is when a person causes another person to commit the burglary. This other person may be legally incapable of committing a crime (such as a child or a person who is legally insane), or directly under the other person’s control. For example, in Wallace and Gromit: The Wrong Trousers, Feathers McGraw uses a sleeping Wallace in mechanical pants to steal the diamond from the museum. In this case, McGraw, not Wallace, is liable for burglary, even though McGraw remains outside the building the entire time.
Classifications of burglary offences vary some by state, but generally fall under four or five degrees of severity, with first degree being the most severe. Each degree carries with it penalty standards, which also vary by state. For example, Maryland has four degrees of burglary:
- First-degree burglary is unlawful entrance into a dwelling with the intent to commit theft or a violent crime. This is a felony with maximum penalty of 20 years incarceration.
- Second-degree burglary is a) entering another person’s storehouse (not dwelling) with the intent to commit theft or a violent crime, or b) unlawful entrance with the intent to commit arson or steal a firearm. This is a felony with a maximum of 15 years (20 when there is intent to steal a firearm) incarceration.
- Third-degree burglary is unlawful entrance with the intent to commit a crime in addition to theft or violent crime. This is a felony with a maximum of 10 years incarceration.
- Fourth-degree burglary is a) breaking and entering a dwelling or a storehouse regardless of intent, b) unlawful presence in a dwelling or storehouse or on the nearby property with the intent to steal, or c) possession of burglar’s tools with intent to use those tools. Each type of fourth degree burglary is a misdemeanor with a maximum of three years’ incarceration.
By contrast, in 30 states, any form of burglary is classified as a felony. Connecticut has only three different degrees of burglary, but also further breaks down these degrees depending on whether or not the burglar has a weapon:
- First-degree burglary: Unlawful entrance to a building with intent to commit a crime AND the suspect either a) is armed with explosives, a deadly weapon, or a dangerous instrument, or b) injures or attempts to injure someone while attempting to commit the crime or while fleeing. This is a felony punishable by five to 20 years incarceration (minimum five years) and/or a fine up to $15,000.
- Second-degree burglary: Unlawful entrance of a dwelling with the intent to commit a crime either a) at night, or b) while someone else is in the building (or both conditions). This is a felony punishable by one to 10 years’ incarceration and/or up to $10,000 in fines.
- Second-degree burglary with a firearm: Committing second-degree burglary while armed with a firearm. This is a felony punishable with one to 10 years incarceration (minimum one year) and/or a fine up to $10,000.
- Third-degree burglary: Unlawful entrance into a building with intent to commit a crime. This is a felony punishable by one to five years incarceration and/or up to $5,000.
- Third-degree burglary with a firearm: Committing third-degree burglary while armed with a firearm. One to five years incarceration (minimum one year) and/or up to $5,000.
As always, you should consult your state’s government website and a local attorney for the most accurate and up-to-date legal information for your state, but this page can give you an idea of your local laws. In over half the states, a burglary is automatically a felony, whereas other states classify only burglaries that involve physical threat as felonies. Regardless of the particulars of their sentencing, burglary of any type carries heavy fines and lengthy prison terms in any state.
The ultimate ruling and definition of a crime is up to the judge, but generally speaking, if someone is in the structure when the would-be burglar enters, the crime becomes a robbery.
Robbery is a classification of theft in which the perpetrator attempts to forcibly take something from another person while the victim is present. Using force can mean physical violence, intimidation, or threats. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics,
“Robbery is the completed or attempted theft, directly from a person, of property or cash by force or threat of force, with or without a weapon, and with or without injury.”
Robbery can be prosecuted as either completed or attempted, and with injury or without injury. Completed crimes usually result in harsher punishment than attempted crimes, and when the incident results in injury (to either the victim of the theft or another bystander), the consequences are also usually greater.
Armed robbery is when the perpetrator uses a weapon to commit the theft, whether they use the weapon to threaten or to actually cause harm. Depending on local laws, some courts may prosecute for both theft and weapons charges.
Most states classify two degrees of robbery. Oklahoma is a good example of this two-degree classification:
- First-degree robbery is a theft in which the perpetrator seriously injures or threatens to seriously injure another person. It’s considered a felony, punishable by 10 years to life in prison.
- Second-degree robbery is any type of robbery where the perpetrator does not seriously injure or threaten to seriously injure another person.
Other states classify a robbery attempted with an accomplice as second-degree robbery. The states that do this also often add a third degree, which is simply a robbery in which force is used to take property directly from another person.
Robbery is usually prosecuted as a state crime, but a robbery that affects multiple states, such as a bank robbery or hijacking a vehicle and crossing state lines, falls under federal jurisdiction.
Extortion is differentiated from the above property crimes by its predication on certain types of threats.
These threats are made “for the purpose of taking money, goods, property, services, or some other thing of value from a victim against his/her will.” These threats can be made against a person or their property (such as threatening to burn down their house or kill their dog) or through “fraudulent claims of right of public duty (such as impersonating a police officer).”
Extortion is prosecutable whether or not the perpetrator follows through on the threats they make—verbal, handwritten, or printed threats are enough to make a case. The threat also doesn’t have to be against the person being extorted—it can be against their loved ones instead.
One example of extortion through nonviolent threats was when David Hans Schmidt gained access to the secret wedding photos of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes and tried to extort $1 million from the couple in exchange for not selling the photos to someone else.
Extortion is a crime often associated with gangs and mafias, such as when an extorter demands payment in exchange for ambiguous “protection” against rival gangs. For example, in this scene from The Sopranos, Patsy tries to charge a coffee shop employee weekly dues for “supplemental safety” against undesirables in the neighborhood.
Extortion is also associated with an abuse of power by public officials—at the federal, state, or local levels—for profit, benefit, or advantage, which under the Hobbs Act of 1951 is called “extortion under color of official right.”
Most states don’t split extortion into degrees of offense, but for those that do, first-degree extortion is usually a threat of physical harm, whereas second-degree extortion is usually a threat to accuse the victim of a crime or misusing authority over the victim.
Blackmail is a form of extortion that does not involve violence threats, but instead relies on the threat of revealing sensitive information. This information often is embarrassing or something that could diminish a person’s standing in their career, with their family, or in their general community. An example would of blackmail would be revealing an extramarital affair.
Bribery is also closely related to extortion, except bribery does not involve threats to the victim.
A tip to help you remember
Paying off a security guard to look the other way would be bribery; threatening to reveal his affair to his family if he doesn’t comply would be blackmail; threatening to break his kneecaps would be extortion.
Talk to a legal professional
The above is meant to be used only as a general reference for the differences among property crimes. Laws vary by state and can change rapidly, so if you need legal assistance, contact a local attorney.