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Burglary vs Robbery: What’s the Difference?

Burglar picking door lockThe terms burglary and robbery are very often confused with each other by those who have little familiarity with the world of criminal justice. However, there is quite a significant difference between these two terms from a criminal justice point of view. In this article we will cover the differences between these two property crimes including the specifics of each as defined by law. And if you are reading this article, chances are good that you have experienced one of these crimes and may benefit from reading our review of the best home security systems today.

Property Crimes

Both burglary and robbery are considered to be property crimes in that they involve either the theft of property from an individual or the unlawful entry to a structure with the intent to steal or commit a felony.

Burglary vs Robbery

Robbery and burglary are both crimes that involve theft and it is the circumstances that surround each that defines their differences. When it comes to the legal definition of theft there are actually a number of categories of theft in addition to burglary and robbery. These additional theft crimes include: larceny, theft and extortion.

Robbery

Robbery is defined by the law as taking or trying to take something from someone that has value by utilizing intimidation, force or threat. In order for robbery to take place, a victim must be present at the scene and can occur with a single victim or, in cases like bank hold ups, multiple victims.

Burglary

Burglary is defined by the law as the unlawful entry to a structure to commit theft or a felony. In order for burglary to take place, a victim does not have to be present. When a burglary takes place, the structure being unlawfully entered can be any number of building types including business offices, personal homes and even garden sheds. Burglary is not the term used for crimes committed on cars.

Larceny

Larceny is a term that is similar to burglary; however, it does not involve illegal entry to a structure using attempted forcible, non-forcible or forcible entry methods. The exception to this rule is the case of burglary of a motor vehicle which is referred to as larceny. Under all conditions, whether a vehicle is left with the doors locked and security system on or whether the doors or windows were left open, vehicle “burglary” crimes are referred to as larceny.

Theft

Many times the term theft is used as a general term by the public to refer to the illegal taking of an item. As it happens, theft is defined specifically depending upon the jurisdiction in which it is being prosecuted but many times it is a term used as a synonym for larceny.

Extortion

Extortion is a specific crime in which an individual forces someone to do something against their will by threatening them with damage to the person’s reputation, financial hardship, violence, property damage or threat of violence. Extortion differs from robbery in that victims who are being extorted willingly hand over the item being extorted in an attempt to avoid the threat being used against them. Depending upon the jurisdiction in which extortion is being prosecuted, it can be considered theft or larceny.

Burglar Vs. Cash Register [VIDEO]

And now for a humorous break, take a look at this burglar trying to wrestle a cash register that’s been secured in place.

The Importance of Categorizing Crimes

It may seem somewhat overkill to have so many different categories of theft crimes; however, when it comes to the legal system each of these categories is important. Having each crime categorized with specific outlines as to what constitutes each crime makes the legal system much more efficient when it comes to administering punishment that correctly fits the crime in question. To some it may seem that theft is theft; however, the theft of an apple from a market stall to feed hunger should not receive an equal punishment to extorting a political official for personal gain. Categories of crimes are not the only method that the criminal justice system used to determine the punishment for these crimes however; degrees are also applied to each category of crime.

Degrees of Offences

Varying degrees of offences are established in order to appropriately categorize specific crimes to help the flow of the legal system. As with most things that pertain to definitions, the general definition of crimes are generally universal; however degrees of offences tend to vary depending upon the state in which the crime is committed.

Degrees of Burglary

Burglary in the United States can be prosecuted as either a felony or a misdemeanor. As mentioned previously, since all fifty states in the United States have varying definitions of each degree of burglary it is difficult to encapsulate them here. In Florida for example burglary can be prosecuted as a third degree, second degree or first degree felony and can carry a maximum mandatory sentence of five years, fifteen years or life in prison. In Virginia burglary can be defined as common law burglary or statutory burglary and can be prosecuted as a class one, class two or class three felony. The degree of the felony is determined based upon the specific circumstances under which the act occurred for example if a burglar had the intent to commit a felony or misdemeanor or whether they were armed at the time of the burglary.

Degrees of Robbery

Robbery is prosecuted as a felony and depending upon the state can be divided in to three varying degrees. An example of this type of division is the state of New York. In New York robbery in the first degree is a class B violent felony and a suspect that is convicted of this crime is looking at a maximum prison term of 25 years and a minimum of 5 years. Robbery in the second degree is a class C violent felony and is the second most serious type of robbery carrying a 15 year maximum sentence if a suspect is convicted. Many times when someone is found guilty of a second degree robbery it is because there was more than one person involved in the crime. Robbery in the third degree is a class D non-violent felony and is the least serious of all robbery charges in the New York penal system. A third degree felony carries a maximum prison sentence of between 2 1/3 years to 7 years.

The Common Law Definition of Burglary

While it has already been mentioned that individual types of burglaries are categorized based upon state definitions there is a common law definition for burglary that determines a general understanding of the crime. According to Sir Matthew Hale the common law definition of burglary is as follows:

The breaking and entering the house of another in the night time, with intent to commit a felony therein, whether the felony is actually committed or not.

While this definition may seem simple enough it is crucial when working in any legal terminology that all aspects of a definition be thoroughly explained in order to avoid misinterpretation. In the case of this definition the following points are purposefully made:

Breaking:

The term “breaking” should be used to refer to using actual force, fraud or threats in an attempt to enter the structure in question. Nothing has to be broken in order for burglary to take place but breaking does not refer to an area open for entry. An individual can be found guilty of “breaking” and entering if they are given permission to enter a particular room but not another that has been closed off to entry and they open this second door and enter the room.

Entering:

The term “entering” should be used to refer to the physical entry of an individual in to a property or the use of a tool to enter the property in lieu of a person in order to commit burglary.

Entry must occur as the result of breaking in: Both breaking and entering are mandatory contributing factors to burglary, someone cannot be found guilty of burglary if they simply enter a property or simply break in to a property alone.

House:

The term “house” is used in this broad definition to refer to a dwelling that is temporarily unoccupied, this cannot include a building that is not regularly utilized for habitation.

Night Time:

The term “night time” is used to refer to the hours between thirty minutes after sunset and thirty minutes before sunrise.

Is the Common Law Burglary Definition the Only Definition of Burglary?

The common law definition of burglary as stated by Sir Matthew Hale – an influential English barrister, judge and jurist, is certainly not the only accepted definition of burglary. While it is not the end all and be all in terms of establishing burglary however, Hale’s definition plays an important role in setting primary guidelines for the primary definition of the crime of burglary. To any one with familiarity with the legal system it is obvious that burglary can in fact occur at any time of day in any structure and these factors do not negate the ability to prosecute the crime.

The Common Law Definition of Robbery

Again we turn to Sir Matthew Hale for the common law definition of the term robbery. As with burglary each state has their own definitions for the particulars when it comes to specific robbery charges but the common law definition of robbery helps to set guidelines for the basic concept of robbery as it was initially defined.

Robbery is the felonious and violent taking of any money or goods from the person of another, putting him in fear, be the value thereof above or under one shilling.

Obviously in this definition of the common law crime of robbery the value being stolen from another pertains to an England of many years ago. While this quantification may no longer be accurate the basic principle of robbery remains the same. The common law definition of robbery is much less intricate than that of burglary and there are far fewer terms left open to interpretation.

The Importance of Sir Matthew Hale

Sir Matthew Hale is an important figure in the history of criminal justice because of the many contributions he made to the field. Certainly many of the definitions and rulings that he is most commonly recognized for are outdated but the contributions he made played a role in laying the foundation for the English justice system to which the American legal system turned for some basic guidance in establishing their own regulations. Matthew Hale served in a number of significant roles in the English justice system which made him somewhat of an authority in criminal justice. Most notably Hale served as the chief justice of the King’s Bench, the chief baron of the exchequer and the justice of the common pleas.

Chief Justice of the King’s Bench

Matthew Hale served as the chief justice of the King’s Bench between May 18, 1671 and February 20, 1676. Hale was preceded in the position by John Kelynge and succeeded by Richard Raynsford. The position of chief justice of the King’s Bench still plays a role in the English justice system however; it is now referred to as the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. The individual serving in this role is charged with being the head of the judiciary and the president of the courts of England and Wales. It is this degree of responsibility that made Hale such an authority when it came to creating a definition for common law crimes.

Chief Baron of the Exchequer

From November 7, 1660 to February 20, 1676, Matthew Hale served as the chief baron of the exchequer. He was preceded in the position by Orlando Bridgeman and succeeded by Edward Turnour. The responsibility of the chief baron of the exchequer was to preside in equity court and speak on behalf of the court. Only nine years following the last chief baron of the exchequer the court of the exchequer was transformed in to the Exchequer Division of the High Court. The last chief baron of the exchequer was Sir Fitzroy Kelly who served in 1866, after Kelly’s death the position of chief baron of the exchequer was combined with the Queen’s Bench Division.

Justice of the Common Pleas

Matthew Hale served as the justice of the common pleas between January 31, 1653 and May 15, 1659. Hale was preceded in the position by John Puleston and succeeded by John Archer. At one time the Common Pleas was considered to be the primary court of common law in both England and Wales The term “Common Pleas” refers to the court system that vied for power with the Exchequer of Pleas and the Court of King’s Bench. The last Justice of the Common Pleas to serve was Nathaniel Lindley who went on to become the judge of the High Court of Justice. Lindley served from May 12, 1875 to November 1, 1875.

Hale’s Contributions to the Legal System

Sir Matthew Hale would retire from the King’s service on February 20, 1676 and that very same year he would die in his home. Hale was 67 at the time of his death and had been suffering from ill health for a while. During his time Hale would contribute a number of things to the legal field but is most recognized for his numerous writings. Of all of his writings two in particular stand out in terms of their contributive value to the legal system: A History and Analysis of the Common Law of England which was published in 1713 and Historia Placitorum Coronae (The History of the Pleas of the Crown) which was published in 1736. In addition to these notable works however, Hale was also recognized for his writings on witchcraft and marital rape which would prove extremely influential during his terms in office.

The Importance of the History of Criminal Justice

The criminal justice system is one thing that has continually changed throughout time and so it may seem redundant to learn about its history and prominent figures to play a role in its establishment. Understanding the past however, is an important aspect of understanding the times in which these laws came about and how later laws were built upon them. The definitions established by Matthew Hale may have been outdated when it came to the American justice system but it is important to understand the basis of the American justice system. The crown that once ruled American colonists may no longer have ruled but the social systems that were developed in England created the foundation which the new American people would use to establish their own society.

Burglary versus Robbery in Summary

It is true that in order to understand the current basis for the definitions of burglary vs robbery one must look back to the criminal justice system that created the foundation for this nation’s own system. However, when it comes to understanding the difference between robbery and burglary today, it is perhaps more important to understand the basics. So in a nutshell what are the defining factors that set apart robbery and burglary?

By definition, in current American law:

  • Burglary involves the entrance in to a structure when an individual is not permitted to be with the intent to commit a crime.
  • Robbery is characterized by the utilization of fear or force in order to take personal property belonging to another.

Common Example of Burglary

The most commonly recognized example of burglary is the breaking and entering in to a home when the primary residents are away on vacation. The individuals breaking and entering into the home have the intent to steal items from the home that do not belong to them.

Common Example of Robbery

The most commonly recognized example of robbery is the hold up of a convenience store; this may or may not include the use of a weapon.

Knowing the Difference Between Burglary and Robbery

The differences between these two crimes are actually fairly clear but over time the interchangeable use of these two terms has led to some degree of confusion. It is important to understand the difference between these two terms in order to accurately describe criminal events as they take place; however, a description of circumstances will generally clarify any confusion for law enforcement officers.

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About Alex Schenker
Alex has in-depth experience with security systems, security software, identity protection and privacy legislation. He loves tennis, hiking, and surfing.
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  • Anonymous

    As someone who does not work in the criminal justice system and who never intends to steal anything from anyone in any manner, I can't see where this would be useful to me in that realm. But, the fact is that when it comes to the legal system, knowing the proper terms as a victim of these crimes can be vital when pursuing the criminal or trying to obtain any information about the crime.

    To be honest, I found this information useful from the perspective of a student. Sometimes the professors make everything so complicated that even the simplest of terms can turn into a migraine before you actually understand them. I find that in times like these, articles like this are totally worth looking at. 

    You did a great job of breaking down the terms and the ramifications of them. I can see where this article would be more useful to law students and victims of crime than to anyone else. Of course, it probably wouldn't hurt for potential criminals to read this either, if nothing else so they can have a glimpse of the details of what they are getting themselves into.

  • ssc2012xyz

    LOL! That burglar is such a moron. Thanks for sharing this hilarious video :)

  • Anonymous

    OMG! The video of the guy trying to take the cash register is hilarious! ROFLMAO!!!

  • Anonymous

    Before reading this article, I admit that I was pretty confused about the difference between a robbery and a burglary.  Actually, I thought that they were one and the same, to be honest.  This article showed me that I was off in that thinking, and I am glad.  Knowing the law is a great help  to you should you become the victim of a crime.

    Robbery is committed forcibly and that makes a lot of sense to me as far as the definition goes.  Burglary, just because it is not done forcibly with victims present, is not a victim-less crime, however.  There is a lot of emotional trauma caused to the victims, who might have anxiety about themselves or their property being harmed again.  It also causes the neighborhood to feel unsafe to residents, which might change how they act toward one another and create a general sense of fear all around the area.  And this is to say nothing of the actual financial damage caused by breaking and entering and the valuable and sometimes priceless items that are stolen.

    Knowledge is power, and knowing these definitions will not only help you be clear when you talk about crimes, but will also help you to understand your rights.  You will need to look at what the laws are in your state, since it is clear that each state has different definitions for every category.

    I want to add that I found Sir Matthew Hale’s common law definitions to be too strict and not easily interpretable.  However, reading the history of who he was and what he did for the criminal justice system in seventeenth-century England was quite fascinating.  It takes visionary thinkers like Sir Matthew to really make changes in the world.  While the history of him and his work was not exactly what I thought I would be reading when I saw the title of this article, it was interesting and informative nonetheless.

    An interesting and historically relevant read that I would recommend; although I would suggest that perhaps somewhere in the title or subtitle that there be mention of Sir Matthew Hale.

    It is vital that other uses be identified in order to expand the concept of constant home management.  Most Americans, in spite of current times, still feel very safe in their homes.  They need some kind of real impetus to push them in the direction of having large amounts of equipment installed into their home. 

    What has helped is that a lot of the equipment is now more easily self-installed.  Wireless technology has taken the leading edge in home security systems and they offer the knowledge that they cannot be compromised by severing lines to the home, and are also attainable for the do-it-yourselfer.  This helps minimize cost to the homeowner and opens it up to more of the market.

    I think that the new services that are out there will be successful as long as they integrate well with the other technology and the lifestyles of the people living in the home.  People are more connected than ever and this is the next step in the process.

  • Anonymous

    I understand that as far as legal terminology is concerned, there is a huge difference between a burglary and a robbery. However, as a victim, I don't know that the experience is all that much different. Of course, being threatened with a weapon is a horrifying experience, but wouldn't that just make you feel as violated a having your house robbed without you being there?

    I think of it the same way I think of horror movies. I don't like to watch them alone because I get scared once the lights are turned off. But, would that change if I saw it happen in person? My fear is more about the fear of the unseen and unknown than it is about the act itself. I don't get afraid when the lights go out because I have had a scary experience. I get afraid when the lights go out because I haven't had the experience and I am afraid to find out it might be worse than what I think or have seen.

    With that being said, I don't think the punishments for either should be that much different. Would a burglar hesistate to hurt you if you happened to walk in while they were taking things out of your house? I'm sorry, but if you step into my home with the intention of taking something out of it, I have to assume that you are prepared for the worst case scenario…namely me coming home in the middle of your theft. The fact that I don't come home during it shouldn't detract from the punishment or the possibility that you would have willingly threatened me if I walked in on you.

    • E.D.

      Unfortunately, I have experienced both situations and I can definitively say that being the victim of a robbery is much worse than that of a burglary. The punishment for conviction of a robbery is also generally greater than a burglary. With a robbery, you are guaranteeing mental harm, and bringing on a very huge risk of physical harm.

      Great coverage of the differences in the legal terminology between these crimes.