Property crimes are offenses that involve an individual’s wrongful acquisition, or destruction, of property that belongs to another individual. These crimes include burglary, larceny, robbery extortion, and embezzlement, which concern wrongful acquisition. Other property crimes, like vandalism and arson, involve damage to property, but are not considered “theft.” Criminal acts against property can carry a felony charge.
Most states define burglary as 1) the unlawful entry into 2) a building or occupied structure with 3) the intent to commit theft. Each of the three elements of burglary must be present for a successful conviction.
The first of the three elements, unlawful entry, can be met by entering a range of structures including houses and businesses. Actual breaking implies some level of force, whether picking a lock or breaking a window. However, even though the definition includes an unlawful entry requirement, no physical breaking to enter is required. For example, an individual may enter through an unlocked door or an open window, or may gain entry through threats.
Generally, states require the structure unlawfully entered to house either people, animals, or property. Additionally, the structure must have been closed to the public at the time of the burglary. For example, if you are hosting a party at your house, and a guest who was invited takes your favorite lamp, it would not qualify as burglary, because they did not unlawfully enter you home. If, however, the guest leaves when your party is over, comes back, picks your front door lock, and steals the lamp, then a burglary has occurred.
Finally, for the unlawful entry into a building or occupied structure to constitute a burglary, there must be intent to commit a crime in the structure. Although the most common crime is theft, i.e. actually taking property, other actions can qualify as burglary as well. For instance, if Adam decides that he wants to steal Benjamin’s new laptop and breaks the lock on Benjamin’s door, but he is interrupted and leaves Benjamin’s home without taking anything, Adam has still committed a burglary. Timing of the intent is important when analyzing whether a burglary has occurred. For example, if an individual intended to commit the crime before breaking into the structure, and then unlawfully enters the structure, a burglary has been committed. However, if the individual did not form the requisite intent until after they were already inside the structure, that act may not qualify as burglary under some state laws. Intent is central to this crime: you can be found guilty of burglary even if you were caught before you managed to get away with any property. The intent to steal is enough.
More commonly known as “theft”, larceny is the taking of another individual’s property without the use of force or unlawful entry into a building. Unlike burglary, larceny has four elements. To be categorized as larceny, it must be proven that there was 1) an unlawful taking and carrying away of 2) someone else’s property 3) without their consent and 4) with the intent to permanently deprive them of their property.
The first requirement to make a larceny case is that there be an unlawful taking. An unlawful taking is one where the removal or appropriation was not legal or not permitted. For example, if your bank properly repossesses your car after you have missed payments, no larceny has occurred. However, on the other hand, if you decide to take someone’s car without their permission with the intent to never give it back, there is a larceny.
For larceny to occur, the property taken must belong to another individual. So, for example, if you lend your ladder to your neighbor and later take it back when your neighbor is not home, your neighbor cannot claim you have committed larceny. This is because the ladder never belonged to your neighbor — it was always your property.
One of the essential components of larceny is consent. If an individual receives consent to take the property, there has been no larceny. For example, if a teenager sees a coat hanging on the back of a chair and decides to take without intending to bring it back and without receiving consent from the owner, there has been a larceny.
Finally, for an unlawful taking of another’s property to be considered larceny, the taker must intend to permanently deprive the owner of the property. To be more precise, in a situation where an individual intentionally takes property but honestly believes the property belongs to them, there has been no larceny. This is because larceny is considered a specific intent crime where an honest mistake (e.g. a sincere belief that the property belonged to the person who took it) creates a defense. If a person mistakes a coat hanging from the back of a chair for their own coat and takes it, there has been no larceny.
Robbery differs from burglary and larceny in that it involves violence or the threat of violence and requires the physical presence of the person from whom property is taken. In most states, the elements of robbery include: 1) the taking of another person’s property 2) in that person’s presence 3) by force or the threat of force. The salient features of this crime are the victim’s presence and the use or threat of force.
These elements mean that a robbery occurs only if the victim of the taking knows what is happening. If Adam breaks into Benjamin’s house while Benjamin is sleeping and steals Benjamin’s computer, that taking does not constitute a robbery. While Benjamin was present at the time, he was not subjected to force or the threat of force. In contrast, if Benjamin wakes up and Adam tells him, “Give me your computer or I’ll shoot,” Adam’s actions rise to the level of robbery. It doesn’t matter if Adam had a gun or not; the mere threat of force is enough – although the use of an actual weapon might count as aggravated robbery or armed robbery, which could entail a harsher sentence. Even a minimal threat, or minimal force, may be sufficient if the victim is in some way weaker or more vulnerable than the perpetrator.
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