Certain types of crimes—like burglary, robbery and theft—are portrayed in the media and tossed around in conversation, but our understanding of these events may be limited, and the terms technically are not interchangeable. So what’s the difference between robbery and burglary? And how does theft fit in?
What’s the difference between robbery and burglary?
The main differences between robbery and burglary include how the crimes are classified and whether a victim is directly involved.
Robbery is a violent crime that directly involves another person as the victim. The FBI’s official definition is “the taking or attempting to take anything of value from the care, custody, or control of a person or persons by force.” Burglary is a property crime defined as “the unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or theft or threat of force or violence and/or by putting the victim in fear.” To be classified as a burglary, the perpetrator does not need to force entry or encounter a victim.
While robbery and burglary are classified separately, both may involve theft. However, the FBI officially considers theft a nonviolent property crime that involves taking someone else’s possessions.
It’s important to note, however, that these crimes may be handled differently from state to state when it comes to definitions and punishments, according to Rajeh A. Saadeh, a New Jersey–based criminal defense attorney.
“Most of the time, robbery is more serious and therefore results in longer jail sentences and higher fines compared to burglary because we generally value the sanctity and safety of ourselves more than of locations, even our own homes,” he said.
Burglary can occur in any type of home, business or structure, including offices, apartments, barns, trailers and boats. Illegal entries into motor vehicles are counted as separate crimes.
Illegally entering a home or business
Entering a property illegally without any kind of force still qualifies as burglary. In this category, a burglar may enter through an open window or unlocked door.
Forcefully entering a home or business
A crime where the culprit forces their way into a home or business. This is considered a property crime as long as there’s no violence toward a victim. According to the FBI, over half of all burglaries involve forcible entry.
Attempting to enter a home or business
Burglars also do not have to succeed at entering to have officially committed a crime. Trying to break a lock without actually going inside would still be considered burglary.
Again, a robbery classification requires force or violence directed toward a victim. A burglary may turn into a robbery if the criminal encounters a homeowner unexpectedly.
Like it sounds, armed robbery involves a weapon, including a firearm, knife or other dangerous instrument (such as mace or brass knuckles). Carjackings and “hold-ups” are types of armed robberies.
Robbery with other physical force
Robbers may also use their arms, legs, teeth or other body parts to inflict harm. A purse snatcher who punches the victim or pushes them to the ground would be classified as a robber.
Theft essentially involves stealing from someone, which means that theft can occur as part of other types of crimes. However, the FBI has a few specific categories of theft.
Larceny (all property except vehicles)
Larceny is “the unlawful taking, carrying, leading, or riding away of property from the possession or constructive possession of another.” This category includes shoplifting, pickpocketing, and the taking of any property (except cars—more on that below) without the use of force.
Crimes that include force are classified as robberies no matter what was taken.
Motor vehicle theft
This category includes the theft or attempted theft of land vehicles, including cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, motor scooters, ATVs and snowmobiles. Watercraft, train cars, planes and construction or farm equipment are not included as motor vehicles.
Again, the exact classification of a crime depends on the state where it occurs and the details of the event.