I’ve Been Robbed!

Exhausted after a long diurnal cycle of guiding ships into port, Mazx hastily parked her hovercraft in the garage, grabbed her bag, and trudged into the house. All she wanted was a tall glass of Ganymedian pinot grigio, a few slices of leftover pizza, and a couple episodes of CSI: Mars. But as soon as she entered her living room, she discovered her furniture in shambles and her collection of priceless antique plastic Coke bottles missing. “Oh no!” she cried. “I’ve been robbed!”

Hang on there, Mazx. Unless the laws have changed by the 23rd century, you haven’t been robbed at all. You’ve been burglarized. But laypeople and writers get this one wrong all the time.

The definitions for both crimes—burglary and robbery—are old ones, originating in medieval England. In the modern United States we’ve tweaked and updated the definitions of both crimes, but the distinction between them remains. And it’s important.

Suppose one evening during the 14th century, Lionel breaks into Chaucer’s house to steal his astrolabe. Lionel would be guilty of burglary, which at that time was breaking and entering a dwelling place at night, with intent to commit a felony. Notice how Lionel doesn’t actually have to be successful in stealing the astrolabe to be charged with burglary. If Chaucer grabs him as soon as Lionel enters the home, and if it can be proved in Ye Olde Court of Law that Lionel intended to steal something while he was there, Lionel’s going to hang for burglary. If he’s successful in taking the astrolabe, Lionel can be charged with a second crime as well: larceny (the unlawful taking of another person’s property).

Today, the definition of burglary is considerably broader. Most states have eliminated the breaking requirement–entering is enough. They’ve also eliminated the requirement that the act take place at night, they’ve expanded the types of places that can be burglarized, and they’ve included people who enter for nefarious purposes other than felonies. California’s burglary law (Cal. Penal Code sec. 459) is a good example of this. In present-day California, Lionel is a burglar if he walks into Target with intent to shoplift, if he enters a mine to steal gold, or if he breaks into a car to take spare change from the console.

But what about robbery?

Well, let’s go back to medieval times. Robin Hood hops out of the trees and points his bow and arrow at a monk. “Hand over your shillings or I’ll shoot!” Robin yells. Robin has just committed robbery: taking another person’s property, with the intent to permanently deprive the person of that property, by means of force or fear. Robbery is actually two crimes packed together—a larceny plus an assault (the threat or actuality of harmful or offensive contact).

Modern robbery laws haven’t changed much since Robin Hood’s time. In California, for example, robbery is

the felonious taking of personal property in the possession of another, from his person or immediate presence, and against his will, accomplished by means of force or fear (Cal. Penal Code sec. 211).

In Mazx’s case, someone entered her home and took her Coke bottle collection. This is burglary. If, on the other hand, the bad guy had aimed his blaster at Mazx while she was at a stop sign and ordered her to give up her hovercraft, that would have been robbery.

Now let’s suppose Mazx arrives home before the bad guy gets there. As she’s pouring her glass of wine, the bad guy bursts in through the front door (which Mazx foolishly left unlocked), points his blaster, and shouts, “Give me your bottles!” Mazx, however, kicks the blaster from his hand, wrestles him to the ground, and hogties him with a kitchen towel faster than you can say qgrzxtiltbom. When our bad guy gets hauled before a 3D image of the judge, he’s going to be facing both burglary and robbery charges. His burglary was complete as soon as he stepped through the door intending to steal things, and the robbery happened when he implicitly threatened to shoot Mazx if she didn’t hand over her precious bottles.

Why does the difference between burglary and robbery matter? Back in medieval times, both burglary and robbery would get you hung, and nowadays they’re both felonies. But while burglary is classified as a property offense, robbery is considered a violent crime—not only has the victim lost property, but she’s also been threatened or physically harmed. Burglary can be devastating, but robbery is more dangerous. Robbery will generally bring a harsher punishment than burglary. (Keep in mind that theft and carjacking are generally not legal terms. They have come into popular use through the media, but they wouldn’t be used by cops or the courts.)

I know, I know. “I’ve been burglarized!” sounds less dramatic. But if you’re aiming for accuracy in your writing, remember to keep burglary and robbery straight.