The Difference Between Burglary and Robbery

Property crimes are possibly as old as man himself, and some of the first types of law enforcement may actually have been devised as a means of dealing with them. In a nutshell, property crimes are simply where one person takes something from another in such a way that society deems it immoral or unethical and therefore passes laws to make it illegal. From pigs, chickens and cows to TV's, computers and other modern day valuables, the legal system has a long history of dealing with the theft of property.

One of the complications of dealing with property theft is the vast array of means by which one person may take something that belongs to another. To that end, the law contains a broad range of names for various types of property crimes. Theft, robbery, extortion, fraud, burglary, blackmail, bribery and larceny are just a few of the many-changing names for these types of crimes or a few of the illegal and unethical means by which one person may take something from another. Because there are so many names for essentially the same type of crime, it can be difficult to understand what the differences are.

Here is a general breakdown of how the law defines these crimes and what each of them means. Below is a more detailed breakdown of the ins and outs of each type of crime and the demarcation line between when one crime becomes another, such as when petty theft becomes larceny or when burglary becomes larceny.

  • Theft: any time one person takes something from another person that does not belong to them, it is considered theft. Theft is sort of the umbrella term for all types of property crimes.
  • Larceny: Larceny occurs any time something is taken by stealth, but there is no breaking and entering. In legal terms, shoplifting is generally referred to as petty larceny, while the theft of larger items is larceny.
  • Burglary: Theft which involves breaking and entering when no other persons are present other than the burglars
  • Robbery: Robbery occurs when a person is present at a burglary. If a burglar breaks into a home and the property owner returns, the crime has just escalated from burglary to robbery.
  • Extortion: Extortion is a type of theft in which threats are made against in individual, their loved ones or other things of value to them in order to coerce them to part with property or valuables.
  • Blackmail: Similar to extortion, blackmail involves the use of sensitive or damning information to use as leverage to coerce someone to give up their property or valuables.
  • Bribery: Also closely related to extortion and blackmail, but involves some type of illegal exchange of money or other goods in exchange for a service


Theft is, once again, the overarching or most broad term applied to all manner of property crimes. The way in which theft crimes are classified for prosecution purposes depends on the means by which the property was taken, the value of the property taken and the means by which the perpetrator acquired the property in question.

Overall, there are essentially two types of theft:

  • Property Theft: Property theft is a rather broad legal category that occurs when a perpetrator takes material items of some kind from their owner without the owner's consent.
  • Financial Theft: Sometimes known as "white collar" theft, this involves the theft of money, but in less tangible ways, such as through embezzlement, forgery or fraud

There are also generally two "levels" of theft, which determine the type of sentence or penalties assessed for the theft.

These are:

  • Petty Theft: Generally involves lower value items ranging somewhere between $500 and $1,000 depending on the state. In most states Petty Theft is considered a misdemeanor and is often penalized with privations, fines, community service or relatively short jail sentences.
  • Grand Theft: Generally involves cash or items valued at more than $500 or $1,000 depending on the state. Grand theft is generally a felony that usually carries with it a prison sentence of a year or more.

One last influential factor when it comes to determining the level, severity or penalties for certain crimes has to do with the use of force or even the threat of force. Theft that involves force or the threat or force are taken much more seriously and are escalated even further when a lethal weapon is involved, such as a gun or knife.

While petty theft or grand theft can be a charge in and of itself, most states break theft down into more specific crimes based on the nature of the crime. There are essentially two types of theft that each have three means of accomplishing the theft that share common similarities. Larceny, burglary and robbery all involve a thief being physically present to commit a crime. Blackmail, extortion and bribery all involve theft wherein the perpetrator is or can be essentially removed from or distant from the crime in some way. Here is a breakdown of each type of theft, how it is committed, what the general penalties or sentences are and what variables determine how a crime is classified as one thing over another.


  • Larceny

In legal terminology, larceny and theft are often used interchangeably. This is because larceny generally does not involve any type of personal contact with the victim. One thing to note about all types of theft in the legal system is that the crime that is actually committed and what a person is charged with can be two different things. This has to do with the sentencing requirements for each. While an action a perpetrator takes may actually constitute a robbery, they may be charged with larceny because it carries less stringent penalties and may encourage the accused to take a plea deal rather than go through a lengthy court proceeding.

Larceny is generally the charge that is made when an individual has a legal right to be in the home or on the premises where the theft occurred, such as a maid, delivery person, employee or guest. If the perpetrator does not have a legal right to be in the house or on the premises, the crime would be considered burglary, but again, that is not necessary what the perpetrator would be charged with. Conversely, if it is originally assumed that the perpetrator did have a legal right to be in the house or on the premises and it is later determined that they did not, the charges can be escalated from larceny to burglary.

As with most crimes, in order to be charged with larceny, there are a number of factors that all have to be in place. These two main factors are:

  • Distance: In order to be considered theft, the money, object or valuable has to have been moved some distance. For instance, if thieves try to steal a car, but are unable to complete the break-in and move the car prior to being apprehended, the charge would be "attempted larceny" rather than larceny.
  • Specific Intent: The second component in determining whether a crime has been committed or not is whether the perpetrator intended to take or steal the item or valuable, without any intention of returning it. For instance, if a person in an airport picks up a bag that looks very similar to theirs and walks away with it, they did not intend to take something that was not theirs, therefore there is no crime. Similarly, if someone borrows a tool from their neighbor's garage with the intent of using it and taking it back, it will be hard to charge them with a crime unless they can prove they never actually intended to take it back.

As with most property crimes, perpetrators can either be charged with petty larceny (sometimes still referred to as "petit" larceny in the original French from which the word came) which is a misdemeanor, or grand larceny, which is a felony. In the majority of states, grand larceny is generally charged when the value of the item or property exceeds $1,000.

On an interesting side note, a perpetrator is also generally charged with grand larceny when the item that was stolen was a credit card. While the value of the card itself is negligible, the potential value can easily exceed $1,000. Other exceptions are made in cases of vehicles and firearms. Even if the value of the vehicle or firearm is less than $1,000, it is still generally considered grand larceny rather than petty larceny.

In most states, petty larceny is a class A misdemeanor which carries with it a maximum penalty of 1 year of jail time and/ or a maximum fine of $1,00. Grand larceny is generally considered a class E felony which carries with it a maximum penalty of 4 years jail time and/ or a maximum fine of $5,000.

  • Burglary

While modern criminal law has evolved to use different terms and apply different penalties for a wide range of property crimes, burglary is one of the oldest classifications of theft, dating all the way back to centuries-old England. According to British common law - from which many of our oldest laws were taken - burglary was defined as breaking into and entering of someone else's dwelling at night with the intent to commit a felony. Needless to say, today a perpetrator can be charged with burglary no matter what time it is, and the definition has expanded to include more than just dwellings, or people's homes.

One thing to note: even if a residence is unlocked and an individual can walk right in, if they do not have a legal and lawful right to be there, it is still considered burglary. In that case, it is generally called "unlawful entry without force" but it is still considered burglary. If they actually break anything in the process of entering, such as slashing a screen, this is still considered "breaking" and is charged as breaking and entering (sometimes referred to as B&E) regardless of whether they intended to steal anything or not.

In addition, it is still considered burglary even if they enter for the purposes of committing a crime other than theft. If, for instance, they break in for the purposes of some type of vandalism, it is still considered burglary, as long as that vandalism would be considered a felony. A person can also be charged with burglary even if they did not succeed in stealing anything. For instance, if an intruder is apprehended by police before they have a chance to steal anything, they can still be charged with intended burglary.

Another interesting twist to this is in the case of renters. If the owner of a property enters a dwelling with the intent to steal property, it is still considered burglary even if they have a key. Renters have something known as a "right of habitation," which means if they have duly rented the dwelling from the landlord, it is considered their property not the landlord's.

One of the reasons for modern laws being so complex is the sheer variety of ways in which criminals devise to commit theft in ways that work around the law. One of these convoluted means of theft resulted in the classifications of Actual Entry and Constructive Entry.

  • Actual Entry: Actual entry is when any part of a person's body enters a structure, including just putting their hand through a window. In addition, if they were to use a tool to grab something just inside without ever physically entering the building or structure, this is still considered actual entry.
  • Constructive Entry: Constructive entry is when one person uses another person to commit a burglary. For instance, sending a child into a building to retrieve something constitutes constructive entry, even though the actual burglar never entered the stricture. If the individual that enters is considered to be under the control of the burglar in any way, the person deemed to be in control is considered the burglar and can be charged with constructive entry.

Burglary is generally broken down into four different levels of classifications. Penalties for each are based on the severity of the crime or intended crime. So First-degree burglary carries with it the harshest sentences while Fourth-degree burglary is considered a misdemeanor in some states. Although, in 30 states, any form of burglary is considered a felony.

For a crime to be considered First-degree burglary, there generally needs to be some kind of intent to commit some kind of violent crime and it is generally directed specifically towards a burglar entering a dwelling. If a burglar entered a storefront or business with the intent to commit theft or some type of violent crime, it is generally considered Second-degree burglary.

Here are the penalties generally assigned for each degree of burglary:

  • First-degree: Maximum prison sentence of 20 years
  • Second Degree: Maximum prison sentence of 15 years. (20 years when the theft involves stealing firearms)
  • Third Degree: Maximum 10 year prison sentence
  • Fourth-Degree: Maximum of 3 years prison sentence
  • Robbery

Ultimately, it is up to a judge to determine the definition of a crime and what charges are the appropriate based on the given circumstances. As a general rule, however, the difference between robbery and burglary is the presence of a victim or bystander.

When a burglar breaks into or enters an empty home with the intent to commit theft or a violent crime, it is burglary. When a burglar breaks into or enters a home when people are present with the intent to commit theft or a violent crime, it is robbery. In addition, if a burglar breaks into an empty home with the intent to commit theft or a violent crime and someone returns home, at that moment the crime escalates from burglary to robbery.

Robbery also does not need to occur within a physical building. If a mugger approaches someone on the street and attempts to forcibly take their possessions, valuables or belongings, it is considered robbery. The use of force can occur in many ways. It can be via the use of a lethal weapon such as a gun or a knife, but it can also be through intimidation, threats or any means of physical violence. Robbery is charged regardless of whether or not the theft is completed and regardless of whether any injury occurred. Sentences and penalties, however, tend to be harsher and higher when a robbery is completed or if there are any form of injuries involved. In addition, the more seriously a victim is injured, the higher the penalties and sentences.

There is also a special category of robbery when a lethal weapon is used to commit a theft, regardless of whether it is actually used to cause any harm. In that case, it is called armed robbery. In the case of armed robbery, perpetrators can sometimes be prosecuted for two separate charges: one for robbery and an additional weapons charge.

In most states, there are two degrees of robbery: first-degree and second-degree. First-degree is the most serious and generally involves serious injury or the threat of serious injury. Second-degree robbery is generally charged when the perpetrator neither injures nor threatens to injure a victim during the commission of the theft. Some states also have a third-degree robbery classification, which is simply where force is used to take something directly from a person, such as a mugging.

Penalties for robbery vary widely from state to state, partly dependent on whether they have a third-degree robbery classification or not. For instance, in New York, first-degree robbery is considered a class B felony, which carries with it a maximum sentence of 25 years. In California, however, sentencing for first-degree robbery ranges from 3 to 9 years. Second-degree sentences also vary widely from state to state, with New York doling out up to 15 years jail time and California offering 2-5 years. One reason for this vast discrepancy, however, is that New York has a third-degree robbery offense, which is considered a class D felony and carries a penalty of up to 7 years jail time, while California does not.

While robbery is generally considered a state crime, there are circumstances in which it can actually become a federal crime. This generally occurs when multiple states are involved, such as when a robbery occurs in one state, but then the perpetrators cross into another state.


Extortion, blackmail and bribery are different from larceny, robbery and burglary in the sense that those types of theft generally involve the thief being physically present in some way. Extortion, bribery and blackmail are still considered theft, but they have their own categories based on the nature of the crimes. Here is a basic breakdown of these three crimes, how they are different and how they are similar.

  • Extortion

Extortion is essentially theft via the use of threats against a person, a person's friends, family or loved ones or their property. For instance, if someone were to threaten to burn down someone's home if they did not pay up or hand over goods or other valuables, that would be considered extortion. Similarly, it is also considered extortion if goods or valuables are taken through fraudulent impersonation of a public official. If a person impersonates a police officer, fireman or other public official for the purposes of taking something from a person, that is considered extortion.

Regardless of whether or not the perpetrator actually follows through on the threat, just making the threat via verbal, handwritten, printed or electronic communication (such as an e-mail) is enough to prosecute for extortion.

In addition to impersonating a public official, extortion is also the charge that is made against legitimate public officials that abuse the power of their office for personal gain. For instance, if police officers charge business owners a fee for protecting their business, otherwise they will look the other way when local gangs do their worst, that is considered extortion. Extortion would also be the charge if a government official were to charge for ensuring that builders get permits or government contracts.

For the most part, there are only a few states that have varying degrees of offense for extortion. Generally, among those that do, first-degree generally involves the threat of some kind of physical harm whereas second-degree does not.


A crime is generally considered blackmail when it does not involve physical threats against a person, their loved ones or their property. Blackmail generally relies on the dissemination of sensitive information to use as leverage to get money or valuables from a victim. In some cases, however, extortion charges rather than blackmail charges can still be brought against a perpetrator even if their threats do not include physical violence.

For instance, if a person were to gain access to private photos or videos of a public figure and threaten to release them unless they are paid a sum of money, that could be considered extortion. As with other types of theft crimes, how a specific crime is charged is largely up the judge and/ or prosecutors. As a general rule, however, extortion is generally charged when some sort of physical threat is made, whereas blackmail generally involves public exposure of some kind and not physical violence. The difference seems to be just how damaging the public exposure would be. If a person were to threaten to reveal their neighbor's affair to their wife, it would most likely be considered blackmail if that person were not a public official. On the other hand, if their neighbor happens to be the Mayor or a police chief, they might be charged with extortion.


Bribery is most closely related to blackmail and extortion, but rather than seeking to take money or goods, bribery generally involves the offering of money or goods in return for a service. For instance, if a person were to offer a judge money for giving a convicted criminal a lighter sentence, that would be bribery. On the other hand, if a perpetrator were to threaten to expose the judge's drug addiction unless the judge hands out a lighter sentence, that would be blackmail or extortion, while threatening to cause harm to the judge's wife or family would be extortion.