Burglary and burglar. Theft and thief. Robbery and robber. We have all seen and heard these terms before, either on the news, in books (do people still read for fun anymore?) or in movies. For example:
- “The police arrest two teenagers last night for burglarizing a local church…”
- “The thief waited patiently until everyone had left the room before he stole the painting…”
- “The stagecoach robbers managed to escape before sunrise…”
We look at these terms and think we know what they mean. After all, we see them almost on a daily basis. Context tells us that they all involve stealing something. But do we really know the distinction between robber and burglar, or theft and robbery? In order to demonstrate the distinctions, let’s look back at the examples above and exchange the terms.
The first example now reads as “the police arrested two teenagers last night for thieving (for you perfectionist, “stealing”) a local church”, or “the police arrested two teenagers last night for robbing a local church.” Obviously, the teenagers did not physically remove the church from its location so we know that there is a distinction between burglary and theft.
However, it sounds correct and plausible for the teenagers to be arrested for robbing a local church. There is no distinction here. Let’s skip to the third example. That example now reads as “the stagecoach thieves managed to escape before sunrise”, or “the stagecoach burglars managed to escape before sunrise.” I think we can all agree that using the terms “thieves” or “burglars” here does not feel quite right. But why? What exactly is the difference between the three?
Burglary actually is not the same as stealing, nor is stealing necessarily a component of burglary. Burglary is the crime of breaking and entering into a structure for the purpose of committing a crime. The “breaking” does not even have to be forceful; an open window is enough.
Suppose the teenagers in the first example live across the street from the church and their parents are gone for the weekend. Late Saturday night they walk home from a party. Unfortunately, they forgot their keys at the party and don’t know where the spare key is. With dead cell phones and no desire to walk back to their friend’s house, they walk across the street to the church. They are surprised to find that the church door is unlocked. They enter and use the church’s phone to call their parents to ask them where the spare key is hidden.
Is this burglary? No, because the purpose of their breaking and entering was not to commit a crime but to call for assistance. At best this is trespassing, but given the circumstances the church minister would likely forgive them. However, if the teenagers entered the church with the purpose of stealing the offering money that is collected, that would then be burglary.
To add a layer of complexity, let’s use the locked-out-of-house scenario again. After calling their parents, they’re about to leave when they see a diamond necklace sitting on the altar (work with me here). Foolishly, they grab the necklace and go home. The next day the police arrest the two because the church’s security camera caught them. Can the police arrest them for burglary? No, because once again their purpose for breaking and entering into the church was to call for help, not to commit a crime. They will be charged with theft (but not robbery).
Theft, also known as larceny, is when a person intentionally and fraudulently takes personal property of another without permission or consent and with the intent to convert it to his or her use. Basically, theft is stealing while embezzlement and robbery are specific kinds of theft. Burglary may involve stealing, but not always. Petty theft is stealing property with a low value while grand theft is the stealing of property of high value.
Robbery is the direct taking of property from a victim through force, threat or intimidation. Armed robbery is robbery that involves a deadly weapon like a gun, knife, or a club. Back to the church example with the diamond necklace. The stealing of the necklace is theft (grand theft), but not robbery because it was not directly stolen from the owner of the necklace. In other words, the teenagers did not take the necklace from the victim’s person. The teenagers were thieves, not robbers.
Suppose when the minister enters the church on Sunday morning and sees that the necklace is gone he exclaims, “we’ve been robbed!” Is he correct? No! Well, not technically correct. He is the victim of a theft, but not of a robbery. So next time you hear someone exclaim “I’ve been robbed”, gently correct them. Instead, what they should say is: “I am the victim of a theft!” Although it doesn’t help them retrieve their property, at least they are using the correct legal term.
I know embezzlement is not in the title or part of the examples, but I ought to define it. Embezzlement is the stealing of funds or property of an employer, company or government or misappropriating money or assets held in a trust. This is a typical white collar crime, and is rarely confused with burglary and robbery. Embezzlement relates more closely to fraud, and people often confuse it with bribery and extortion. The explanation for those terms will have to wait for another day.
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