It’s not uncommon that people use the terms burglary and robbery interchangeably, but they have very different implications in the world of criminal justice.
While both are theft, the key difference between the two terms is this: in a robbery, a victim must be present and robbed of something valuable by way of intimidation, force, or threat.
Burglaries, however, are often done without the victim present, like a home break-in during the day when nobody is home.
That’s the basic difference between robberies and burglaries. But we offer a more in-depth answer below. We’ll also touch on terms like larceny and extortion to see where they fall in the greater scope of theft.
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Both robbery and burglary are types of theft—the broad term that covers any instance where one person takes an item from another without the intent to return it.1
The term is broken down into different categories for the sake of prosecution:
- Petty theft: Petty theft covers instances where the total value of items stolen is worth less than $500–$1,000, depending on the state. Because the items stolen are of less value, first-time petty theft offenses are usually charged as misdemeanors.
- Grand theft: Anything stolen over the $500–$1,000 threshold becomes grand theft. This type of theft is generally charged as a felony, even for first-time offenders.
- Financial theft: Financial theft is the least tangible of the three and includes “white collar” theft like embezzlement, insurance fraud, or forgery.
Defining burglary vs. robbery
While the terms are practically synonymous today, there’s a big difference between burglary and robbery in the court of law.
What is burglary?
The common-law definition of burglary, developed centuries ago, was defined as entering someone’s home at night to commit a crime. Of course, modern courts have evolved the term quite a bit. Today’s definition of burglary has expanded to include the unlawful entering of any structure, at any time of day, with the intent to steal property. Structures can include business offices, homes, and even garages or garden sheds.
Burglaries do not require forcible entry—a burglar can just walk in an unlocked door. In order for a burglary to take place, a victim does not have to be present. That means a burglary can take place in your home when you’re away on vacation, but robberies cannot.
What is robbery?
Robbery is defined by the law as taking or trying to “take something of value directly from someone by utilizing intimidation, force or threat.”2 For example, if there’s an attempted burglary but someone is in the house, it becomes a robbery.
Two important factors that courts take into account during robberies are whether or not the robbery was completed (items were taken during the act), and whether there was injury to the present victim(s). These factors help classify the robbery as either first degree or second degree, which can greatly impact sentencing. First-degree robbery can be punishable in some states by 10 years to life in prison.
Property crime can include either burglaries or robberies. It refers not just to crimes to obtain property from someone else like money, electronics, vehicles, and jewelry, but also includes acts of vandalism and arson.
Larceny is similar to burglary; however, it does not typically involve illegal entry into a structure.3 The exception to this rule is burglary of a motor vehicle, which is referred to as larceny. Regardless of whether the doors are locked and the windows are closed, vehicle theft crimes are classified as larceny.
Extortion is a crime in which an individual forces someone to do something against their will by threatening them with damage. In most cases, extortion requires the threat to be made directly to the victim or their property.4
Blackmail is a common type of extortion––and although it doesn’t pose physical harm to the victim, the blackmailer threatens to expose them with embarrassing or damaging information.
What this means for prosecution
It may seem somewhat overkill to have so many different categories of theft crimes, but when it comes to prosecution within the legal system, each of these categories becomes important. Classifying these crimes differently helps courts administer punishments that more adequately fit the crimes in question. In addition to categorizing crimes with the above definitions, courts also use degrees to determine the severity of a case.
Prosecution for these crimes varies by state. For more specific information, you can find your state’s statutes regarding the classification and punishment for these crimes.
Knowing the difference between burglary and robbery
There are clear differences between these two crimes, but over time the interchangeable use of these terms has made them synonymous to many. It’s helpful to understand the differences between these two terms so you can more accurately describe them in the event of a break-in.