Theft, robbery, burglary: Know the difference

There are distinct differences among burglary, theft and robbery, which each carry their own serious consequences.

Many people in California could not tell you the differences among theft, robbery and burglary. The three terms are often used interchangeably in everyday language. However, when it comes to the law, there are extremely important distinctions that could mean the difference between days and years in prison.

The reason so many people use theft, robbery and burglary to refer to the same act is because of the key similarity: Each involves potentially taking someone's personal property without his or her permission. As with anything else, the devil is in the details.

What is theft?

Theft is the most basic charge of the three, and is also referred to as larceny. In California, the law defines theft as taking someone's personal property or otherwise defrauding her or him of it. Property includes not only real, tangible items and money, but also labor or services.

There are two types of theft in California. The first, petty theft, involves property that is worth less than $950. Grand theft refers to an act involving property above that threshold.

What is robbery?

A robbery occurs when someone uses fear or actual force to steal something from someone who is in the presence of the object. For example, if someone takes a laptop that a student walks away from in a library, it would be theft. However, if someone took the laptop out of the student's arms, it would be robbery.

California has first degree and second degree robbery. Robbery in the first degree occurs if the act takes place while the victim is on the job as a taxi driver or transit operator; if the act takes place in a home or dwelling; or if the act consists of taking something from a patron using an automated teller machine or in the vicinity of one.

What is burglary?

Burglary is where things get a little tricky, because technically, it does not have to involve an actual theft. California code states that someone may be charged with burglary if he or she enters a property without the owner's permission and has the intention of committing a crime. A property could include a home, tent, vessel or businesses.

A first degree burglary charge involves entering any inhabited dwelling, which means the property was in use as a dwelling at the time of the act. Second degree burglary involves commercial burglary, such as of a store or business.

What are the punishments for each?

The following summarizes the possible penalties for each crime:

  • Petty theft: Up to six months in prison
  • Grand theft: Up to three years in prison for some felony theft charges
  • First degree robbery: Up to nine years in prison
  • Second degree robbery: Up to five years in prison
  • First degree burglary: Up to six years in county jail
  • Second degree burglary: Up to one year in county jail

In addition to prison time, it is possible that someone convicted of any of these charges could be ordered to pay fines as well as restitution to the victims.

What if the defendant had a weapon at the time?

When a weapon is involved in any of these crimes, it could result in an "aggravated" charge. This typically means that the possible sentence is increased.

Anyone who has concerns about this topic should speak with a criminal defense attorney in California.