Legal Definitions of Two Distinct Theft Crimes
The laws of most states make specific distinctions between certain types of theft offenses, identifying particular elements that separate petty larceny from grand larceny—typically, the value of the goods taken—and also setting forth factors that differentiate the crimes of burglary and larceny.
What Is Larceny?
The most common of theft offenses, larceny (derived from the Middle English term larcin, meaning “theft”) requires four specific elements. The accused must:
- Take and carry away—The requirement to take and carry away means that simply taking someone else’s property into your hands doesn’t constitute larceny. You must go somewhere else with it.
- Take the personal property of another—Larceny requires the theft of personal, tangible property. You can’t be charged with larceny for wrongfully taking someone’s labor or services.
- Take the property without permission or legal authority—Consent or legal authority (under a writ of repossession or similar document) is generally a valid defense to a charge of larceny.
- Take the property with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of its use—Merely borrowing the goods of another person does not amount to larceny.
As a practical matter, larceny is generally categorized as either petty (or ‘petit’) larceny or grand larceny, based on the value of the goods taken. In many states, that dollar amount for reaching the threshold of grand larceny can vary depending on the circumstances of the theft and the type of property stolen. For example, in Virginia, the threshold for grand larceny is different for pickpocketing offenses than for theft of a firearm.
How Does Burglary Differ from Larceny?
Although different states use somewhat different language, the essence of burglary is:
- an unlawful entry into
- an occupied structure (home) or building
- with the intent to commit larceny.
Because burglary requires only an intent to commit larceny, you can still be charged and convicted if you are caught before you actually steal anything or if you decide to take nothing. Once you wrongfully enter a house or building, you commit a burglary, provided it can be proved you entered the premises with the intent to steal something.
Although “unlawful entry” often means using force to get into a structure, there is typically no such requirement under the law. If the premises are unlocked, for example, it still constitutes burglary if you intend to commit larceny when you enter. Conversely, if you enter property with permission and steal something while there, it’s larceny, but not burglary, as there was no unlawful entry.
Burglary requires entry into some type of structure. The theft of a motor vehicle may be larceny, but it won’t be burglary, unless the car was in a garage or some other structure when it was taken.
The most difficult component to prove in burglary is intent. It must be shown that, when you unlawfully entered a house or building, you already had the intent to commit larceny. If you decide to steal something only after you enter a house, then you might commit larceny, but not burglary.