Theft, Larceny, Burglary, and Robbery Defined

Differences between Theft, Larceny, Burglary and Robbery

Types of Theft

Many people use the term, “I was robbed” to describe when someone has taken their property without consent. However, there is a difference in the elements of the crimes between Theft, Larceny, Burglary and Robbery. These crimes all involve the taking or attempted taking of personal property from another person, but each has different characteristics or elements.

Every crime consists of a group of elements defined by a statute of law defining the offense. Every element must exist or the statute is not violated. This group of essential elements is known as the “corpus delicti” and must be included in the crime report. Every state and nation will establish laws that define criminal acts by elements.

Each type of theft requires the suspect takes the victim’s property without his/her consent and with the intention to permanently deprive the owner, now victim, of his/her use or possession of the property.

The names applied to the thefts are commonly called larceny, petty theft, grand theft depending on state in which the victim lives or is visiting that depend the circumstances of the crime described below. The critical element that separates robbery from larceny, theft, and burglary is the presence of force, threat of force, and/or the fear of harm in order to deprive a person of property within their immediate possession.

Robbery Defined

Robbery is defined by the corpus delicti consisting of:

  1. Taking the personal property of another
  2. From the person or immediate presence
  3. Against his/her will
  4. By means of force or fear

Either force or fear must be present for robbery. If neither are present, then crime is classified as larceny.

  • Force used during a robbery will usually be defined more than what is necessary to remove the property and then the asportation describing the carrying off of property.
  • If the victim resists the loss of their property from a theft, burglary, or larceny, there must be additional force to overcome resistance, no matter how slight to make the crime a robbery.
  • Fear is element of robbery is often in conjunction with the use of force to take the property, but is not necessary. Fear must be perceived by the victim at the time the offense. There may be either (1) a fear of immediate injury to the victim, or a fear of an injury to the person or property of any one in the company of the victim at the time of the robbery.

Types of Robbery: Laws may also define robberies in terms of classifications or degrees as well as by types of robbery such as “armed” or “strong arm” robbery of a person; robbery during the commission of rail vessel in operation; home invasion; bank robbery; carjacking; taxi; and ATM user. A home invasion robbery may combine robbery with burglary when property is taken.

  • Armed Robbery is when the suspect uses an instrument which could cause great bodily injury such as a gun, knife, club, pipe, dirk, or other object used to create a threat of physical harm.
  • Strong Arm Robbery is when the suspect uses bodily force without an instrument such as fists, feet, pulling the object away from the victim, shoving or holding victim to the ground, putting a sack overhead, restraining the feet or hands in order to take the property and/or facilitate escape.

Robbery is classified as a violent crime because it involves fear and/or force, although the victim does not have to suffer an injury during the theft to be classified and prosecuted as a robbery. The seriousness of the offence is influenced by the type and severity of the victim’s injuries. Sometimes robbery can involve aggravated assault which is an attack that goes beyond what is necessary to commit the robbery and causes great bodily harm. These degrees and circumstances can determine the length of punishment if the robber is convicted. The seriousness of the crime may be elevated to attempted homicide by the State’s Prosecutor.

Larceny Defined

Larceny is defined as an act that involves the taking of property in the immediate presence of another person usually when physically on the body of a person without the suspect using force or fear. Examples of larceny often include a pickpocket, cell phone snatch from the hands of the victim, chain grab. Grand larceny is usually classified when property is taken off the body of another regardless of the value of the property.

Grand larceny may also be described as grand theft when the property is valued above a specified dollar amount by the legislature of a state or province. See Theft defined.

Theft Defined

Theft is defined as an act that involves the taking of property in the immediate presence of another person. A crime is classified as theft such as taking an item laid upon the ground or bench without force or fear. If the item is within a closed structure, the theft would be classified as a burglary.

Petty Theft versus Grand Theft: Depending on the value of the item will differentiate between petty theft and grand theft. State legislatures determine the threshold value of the amount property which classifies a theft between petty and grand theft.

Petty theft is considered a misdemeanor and grand theft is prosecuted as a felony with longer time for sentencing in county jail or state prison. The threshold value may be an arbitrary price barrier to determine the market value of the property stolen. For example, the state law may value $500 as the petty-grand threshold. Other items may be arbitrarily classified as grand theft such as certain agriculture products or animals regardless of what dollar amount the item may be worth at market.

Burglary Defined

Burglary is defined by the corpus delicti consisting of:

Unauthorized entry of a structure. A structure is commonly defined as having four walls and a roof. The structure does not always need to be occupied, or there is an understanding it is occupied home or business. Some states may classify a temporary structure sufficient to qualify the theft as burglary such as a tent, shed, or inside a vehicle.

The unauthorized entry into a structure does not necessary require the suspect break into the structure such as smashing glass, bypassing locks, breaching by making holes in the walls, or other forceful means. Unauthorized entry may be made through an unlocked door, open window, use of a key, or the suspect reaches inside with his arm or an object.

The criterion of unauthorized entry means the suspect does not live there nor have rights to enter during such as an employee entering after hours closed hours. Though burglary usually involves theft of property from a home, business, boat, or vehicle, other crimes associated with burglary include trespassing, rape and stalking. Shoplifting using a bag, drop pocket, or backpack may classify a theft as a commercial burglary.

Intent to commit another crime besides the unauthorized entry of the structure. The criteria involving intent to commit another crime is often sufficiently satisfied with the unauthorized entry of any structure. The suspect does not have to attempt or actually commit the other crime.


Classifying Property Possession

The victim is the rightful possessor of the property that is taken without permission, but the victim may not necessarily be the owner of the property. In cases of larceny and robbery, the possessor may have owner’s permission to possess the property such as a cashier or bank teller who is harmfully threatened unless he/she hands the suspect money or other items. In this case, the suspect is taking property in control of the victim. There are two victims in this case.

In cases of theft, where the actual owner gave someone else permission to possess their property that was subsequently stolen, the owner must contact law enforcement as a victim/owner of the stolen property. The possessor of the property would be classified as a witness or reporting party of the crime.

Property taken in a burglary may not belong to the owner or resident of the structure, but the resident would be the victim of burglary because they were in possession of the property that was under their roof at the time of the theft.

If the owner lends property to a borrower. If the borrower takes the property again at a later time, he may not be prosecuted as theft because of the arguable perception of borrowing. However, if the borrower fails to return the property once the owner asks for it back, the borrower is now a suspect for petty or grand theft depending on the threshold value.


For more detailed descriptions of theft laws review your State’s Penal Code or consult a law enforcement officer or criminal lawyer in your state.