Theft crimes are crimes that involve the unauthorized taking of the property of another with the intent to deprive them of it permanently. Historically, theft involved three different categories of crime: larceny, embezzlement and false pretenses. Embezzlement was defined as the fraudulent taking of the property of another by someone who is in lawful possession of it. For example, if a banker takes the money of one of his customers this may be embezzlement. False pretenses involved a false representation of a fact by a defendant that caused another to hand over title to property to the defendant. In most states, these two crimes are now incorporated within the broader crime of larceny and the term “theft crime” is used to represent different types of property crimes, including larceny, robbery, burglary, shoplifting and auto theft.
Traditional Theft Crimes
Larceny is perhaps the crime we most commonly know as “theft.” While most states have larceny statutes, some states continue to refer to larceny as “general theft.” Larceny involves the taking of the property of another without their consent. Someone who commits larceny must have intended to deprive the owner of the property permanently.
Robbery is a more serious form of larceny that involves the use of force. In fact, robbery is often defined as “larceny of another person by force.” Because violence is typically a component of this form of theft, defendants who commit robbery often face more severe punishments, including longer prison sentences, in comparison to other theft crimes. If a robbery goes awry, it may also implicate other crimes, like the felony murder rule.
A lesser form of larceny that is often discussed in the news is shoplifting. Unlike general larceny or robbery, shoplifting does not usually involve taking items from another individual. Rather, it is the taking of goods from a retail establishment without the establishment’s consent. While some states have separate statutes for shoplifting, in many states shoplifting falls under statutes prohibiting larceny and is treated as a lesser crime at the discretion of a judge. As with other theft crimes, shoplifting requires not only that the individual have taken merchandise, but also that he or she had the intent to deprive the store of the items. Thus, shoplifting typically does not apply to individuals who may have mistakenly placed an item in a bag or forgotten to pay.
Finally, many states have enacted special statutes to deal with the larceny of motor vehicles, also known as auto theft. Auto theft is a significant problem within many parts of the country, and many states have enacted severe punishments for those caught stealing, or attempting to steal, a vehicle.
Burglary is a very specific theft crime that has evolved over the years. Traditionally, a conviction for burglary required as showing that the defendant unlawfully entered a house at night with the intent to commit a crime within. This definition greatly limited convictions for burglary, as it could be applied only to theft that took place within a home (as opposed to an office building or garage) and during the dark. For this reason, most states have now expanded the definition of burglary to more broadly apply to the unlawful entering of any structure with the intent to commit a crime within. Notably, although we typically think of burglary as a theft crime, this broader definition does not limit the objective crime to larceny—the defendant may enter the structure for any criminal purpose.