Burglary: It’s Not Robbery

Before we dive headfirst into the real meat of this article, let’s first begin with a bit of background regarding the crimes of burglary and robbery. Otherwise, those of you who use social media sites and/or watching TV news and crime dramas as your main sources of research, well, you may not know that burglary and robbery are not the same. Not even close.

Here’s a great example of how the media often mixes up the two crimes.

The headline:

“British Olympian says medals were stolen from her home in robbery.”

I read the article hoping I’d learn how and why armed and dangerous bad guys forcibly robbed the unfortunate female athlete at gunpoint in her own home. But that’s not what happened. The headline was inaccurate, likely due to an ill-informed writer and/or editor.

The public typically assumes when they read or hear something in the news, it must be fact because, well, it’s the news, and not fiction. When the media passes along bad information, unsuspecting everyday people could believe it to be true and then repeat it in conversation and/or in writings. And this is one way those faux facts make it into books. The best means to prevent using this type of misinformation, of course, is to conduct honest to goodness research.

Back to the news story about the runner’s “home robbed at gunpoint.”

The first line of the first paragraph of the news story immediately contradicted the headline, saying the distance runner received the news that her home had been ransacked while she was away. 

“A British Olympian distance runner said Wednesday thieves ‘ransacked’ her home and stole some of her medals and jewelry.” According to the BBC, she said a family member went to check on her dog and found the home “trashed.”

The runner, Eilish McColgan, later said she was upset and angry when she learned that her home had been the target of a burglary.

She’d not been robbed. She was not at home when the crook broke into her home and took her belongings. Unlike the news reporter, Eilish McColgan knew the difference between burglary and robbery.

The fact that she was not at home is very important detail that affects how the criminal would be charged, if caught.

Burglary is a property crime.

In a property crime, a victim’s property is stolen or destroyed, without the use or threat of force against the victim. Property crimes include burglary and theft as well as vandalism and arson. – National Institute of Justice

Burglary as defined by Black’s Law Dictionary

“The breaking and entering the house of another in the night-time, with intent to commit a felony therein, whether the felony be actually committed or not.”

In Virginia, where I served as law enforcement officer/detective, the law governing burglary states:

§ 18.2-89. Burglary; how punished.

If any person break and enter the dwelling house of another in the nighttime with intent to commit a felony or any larceny therein, he shall be guilty of burglary, punishable as a Class 3 felony; provided, however, that if such person was armed with a deadly weapon at the time of such entry, he shall be guilty of a Class 2 felony.
§ 18.2-90. Entering dwelling house, etc., with intent to commit murder, rape, robbery or arson; penalty.

If any person in the nighttime enters without breaking or in the daytime breaks and enters or enters and conceals himself in a dwelling house or an adjoining, occupied outhouse or in the nighttime enters without breaking or at any time breaks and enters or enters and conceals himself in any building permanently affixed to realty, or any ship, vessel or river craft or any railroad car, or any automobile, truck or trailer, if such automobile, truck or trailer is used as a dwelling or place of human habitation, with intent to commit murder, rape, robbery or arson in violation of §§ 18.2-77, 18.2-79 or § 18.2-80, he shall be deemed guilty of statutory burglary, which offense shall be a Class 3 felony. However, if such person was armed with a deadly weapon at the time of such entry, he shall be guilty of a Class 2 felony.

VA Code § 18.2-91

If any person commits any of the acts mentioned in § 18.2-90 with intent to commit larceny, or any felony other than murder, rape, robbery or arson in violation of §§ 18.2-77, 18.2-79 or § 18.2-80, or if any person commits any of the acts mentioned in § 18.2-89 or § 18.2-90 with intent to commit assault and battery, he shall be guilty of statutory burglary, punishable by confinement in a state correctional facility for not less than one or more than twenty years or, in the discretion of the jury or the court trying the case without a jury, be confined in jail for a period not exceeding twelve months or fined not more than $2,500, either or both. However, if the person was armed with a deadly weapon at the time of such entry, he shall be guilty of a Class 2 felony.

§ 18.2-92. Breaking and entering dwelling house with intent to commit other misdemeanor.

If any person break and enter a dwelling house while said dwelling is occupied, either in the day or nighttime, with the intent to commit any misdemeanor except assault and battery or trespass, he shall be guilty of a Class 6 felony. However, if the person was armed with a deadly weapon at the time of such entry, he shall be guilty of a Class 2 felony.

Clear as mud, right?

Notice that I highlighted a brief portion of a sentence above in red, and three specific words in blue—with intent to commit larceny or any felony other than murder, rape, robbery or arson …” I did so to emphasize that robbery is not a portion of, or related to the basic crime of burglary. It is a completely separate offense.

Burglary and Robbery are not the same!

Okay, still confused when I say that robbery and burglary are not the same crime? You ask, how could this be the case when so many TV and print news reports and fictional television shows time and time again tell us that Ms. or Mr. Crime Victim’s house was robbed?

An inanimate object cannot be robbed

Typically, burglary involves the breaking and entering the house of another, and only a burglar, or burglars, are involved. There’s no force, threat, or intimidation used against a resident during the taking of an item or items from a victim, because the victims are not present. For example, you and your spouse are out for the evening when Joe I. Stealem enters your home through a downstairs window and swipes a carton of orange juice from your refrigerator.

Author Lawrence Block expertly captures the essence of a professional burglar, and he does so quite nicely with his character Bernie Rhodenbarr. Keep in mind, though, that Rhodenbarr is not the average residential burglar encountered on a weekly basis by patrol officers in your town.

Now, on to robbery.

Violent Crimes.

In a violent crime, a victim is harmed by or threatened with violence. Violent crimes include rape and sexual assault, robbery, assault and murder. – National Institute of Justice.

Black’s Law definition of Robbery.

“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.”

Traveling back to Virginia, we see that robbery there is defined as:

Virginia Code § 18.2-58. How punished.
6 replies
  1. Stephen M Terrell
    Stephen M Terrell says:

    For a number of years I have done a presentation on “Objection: Getting It Right — The Law in Fiction and Film.” You can always tell a mystery/thriller writer who has researched the law, made a visit to a courthouse, sat in on a few trials and interviewed or just talked with prosecutors and defense lawyers. It makes a big difference in the credibility of the story. Keep up the great work on educating writers.

  2. Les Edgerton
    Les Edgerton says:

    Hi Lee, Thanks. I had no quarrel at all with the article–just felt it was mostly about home invasions and little to none about burglaries of businesses. And, each state is different! And, to get across the opinion of most burglars who break into businesses–that we look down on house creepers as the lower rung of burglars. Kids, low-level drug dealers, people with little guts who have to have partners to break in with and don’t have the balls to work solo or sober… That saying, “he has the guts of a burglar” isn’t referring to those who have to have partners or be drunk or high. Also, not all burglaries are break-ins. I pulled several jobs (successfully) when I went into a bar near closing time, then hid myself until closing time (usually up on a stool in the john) and then took my time robbing it after everyone had left. My own favorites were the businesses that had all these great windows and doors–which I took time to admire–then took a crowbar or hammer to the siding around the door or window. Straights often think criminals think the same way they do… and the ones who get caught often do.

    My fondest memory is when my rappie and I were driving home after a night of break-ins (and, yes, sometimes I worked with someone else, but mostly alone) and we approached this little grade school out in the country and he begged me to pull over and hit it. I argued against it, asking what kind of money would be in a school and he insisted the principle kept money in his office. So, reluctantly, I parked and we approached the door and busted the glass and were in. The minute we entered, someone down at the end of the hall started shooting at us. Rat (and yes; that was his nickname and yes; he was) I both ducked into opposite classrooms, pulled out our pieces and started trading fire. We assumed it was the cops. After more than 15 rounds were fired back and forth, a voice from the other end yelled out, “We give up!” I looked over at Rat and said, “Do cops give up?” and he said, nope, and I yelled, “Are you guys cops?” One of them yelled, “No. Are you?” We met in the middle, talked a couple of minutes and had a giggle or two over it and one of them said they were going to stay and see what they could get. Rat wanted to as well, but I said, no, I’/m leaving. I know we’re in the country and all but it sounded like a war for awhile and I bet some farmer heard and called the man.” We wished them luck and left. I don’t know if they ever got busted or no–we didn’t watch TV or read newspapers in those days, so never knew.

    And, that’s why I was a criminal. A lot more exciting than selling whole life…

    Blue skies,

  3. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Les, as always, thanks for your insight. Also, the Virginia law above – § 18.2-90 – does address the break and enter of any building, not just residences.

    “If any person in the nighttime enters without breaking or in the daytime breaks and enters or enters and conceals himself in a dwelling house or an adjoining, occupied outhouse or in the nighttime enters without breaking or at any time breaks and enters or enters and conceals himself in any building “

  4. Rebecka Vigus
    Rebecka Vigus says:

    I keep my Black’s Law Dictionary beside me whenever I am writing crime. I don’t want to get it wrong. I also have family and friends in law enforcement if I am unsure. I don’t want to be accused of writing something so wrong that everyone would see it and say, well she’s not credible.

  5. Les Edgerton
    Les Edgerton says:

    This only dealt with home burglary, when there are other forms. Burglary was my primary crime when I was in the life. Each state is different, but in Indiana, where I plied my craft, there are two forms of burglary, first- and second-degree burglary. First-degree is burglary of a domicile, while second-degree is burglary of a business. There are vastly different penalties for each. First-degree carries a primary sentence of 10-and-a-quarter (10-25 years). Second-degree has two possibilities; either 2-5 or 1-10. I was involved in second-degree. When I was found guilty, I had the option of either sentence and I chose a 2-5. It would have been nice to only do a year but the downside if you messed up inside or messed up on parole was ten years. Those sentences have since changed. But in my time, the minimum time required on a 10-25 was 6 years and 8 months before one could make parole. Also, most of those doing 10-25 got out on a governor’s pardon. Civilians think pardons are rare but when I was in hundreds were given out annually. The “cost” was usually $5,000. Your lawyer contacted another lawyer connected to the governor and made the payment. Illegal, but very common.

    The reason home burglary carried the longer sentence was the reasoning that someone might be home or walk in and get hurt or rendered room temperature. Business burglary carried much less risk of that, so… Plus, most home burglaries only got you a TV, a hernia for carrying it out and some cheap costume jewelry. Business burglary often gained one cash and much less risk. Bars are the most common target and it’s a quick in and out (bartenders tend to hide the receipts in the dirty towel container and other equally-predictable “hiding places.” Plus, booze. Those of us who preyed on businesses thought of house creepers as morons, usually low-level drug dealers who weren’t all that bright. Business burglary was easy-I broke into 84 businesses in a three-month period and when I was finally caught was only charged with 20–most jobs I pulled on my own and the ones I was charged with were the very few my rappies were with me on and rolled over on. And, I would have beat those except for my then-girlfriend which I don’t have room to relate here. If interested, most of that is in my memoir, ADRENALINE JUNKIE.

    Blue skies,
    Les Edgerton

Comments are closed.