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Burglary, Robbery and Theft are Distinct Crimes under Pennsylvania Law

On Behalf of | Sep 30, 2013 | Burglary

As a criminal defense lawyer, it is a pet peeve of mine to hear people misuse the terms “burglary and “robbery.” It is a common mistake for people to use these terms interchangeably, as if they are synonyms for the same crime. However, as any first year law student or police academy graduate can tell you, these are actually very distinct crimes not only under Pennsylvania law, but in all jurisdictions following English common law traditions.

A robbery consist of a theft, accompanied by the use of force or threat of force. In Pennsylvania, robbery is graded as either a first, second or third degree felony, depending upon which subsection of the robbery statute fits the facts of the case.

All robberies involve theft, while not all thefts are a robbery. If a guy wrestles a purse out of an old lady’s hand and runs away with it, it is a robbery. If the same guy sees an iPhone sitting unattended on a coffee shop table and makes off with it, then it is merely “theft by unlawful taking,” a much less serious crime than robbery. Many defendants guilty of theft by unlawful taking wind up with a sentence of probation, while very few defendants convicted of robbery avoid incarceration.

Burglary consists of entering a structure, such as a business, apartment, dorm room or house, with the intent of committing a crime therein. Burglary is graded as either a first or second degree felony under Pennsylvania law. The crime, which the burglar intends to commit, is usually theft, but not always. If a man breaks into a house and rapes the occupant, he is guilty of both rape and burglary, even if he did not steal anything. Likewise, breaking into an apartment in order to smash up property and beat up the occupants constitutes a burglary, in addition to criminal mischief and either aggravated and simple assault.

Sometimes, a burglary and robbery can arise from the same incident. This is commonly referred to as a “home invasion robbery.” For example, if two men force their way through a door with guns drawn and demand that everyone in the home hand over their money, drugs and other valuables, they are guilty of both robbery and burglary.

A home invasion robbery can occur only when there are occupants in the home, which the burglars/ robbers unlawfully entered. This is because the criminal cannot use force against a victim who is not even present. When a victim returns from vacation to discover a ransacked home, he may scream in shock and frustration, “we were robbed!,” but this is actually an incorrect statement. The victim was burglarized, not robbed, or if you prefer to use archaic English, he was “burgled.”

Usually, crimes like burglary and robbery are committed by traditional criminals, but sometimes, even college students find themselves facing such charges. I know this because as a criminal defense attorney in a college town, I have represent a few students each year with burglary or robbery charges. Not surprisingly, alcohol is almost always a major factor underlying robbery or burglary charges lodged against college students. By contrast, theft by unlawful taking is often committed by students who are completely sober. In a town like State College, thefts are usually crimes of opportunity with little advanced planning.

Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University.

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