California Robbery Laws: Crimes and Punishments

California Robbery Laws: Crimes and Punishments
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Theft crimes don't all look alike, and under California law, actions involving the unlawful taking of personal property can constitute entirely different crimes. While larceny is California's core theft crime, robbery is a variation on the theme considered sufficiently different from basic theft to constitute an entirely separate crime. What is the difference? Robbery always involves use of force or threats to use force. And, unlike larceny, it is always a felony under California robbery laws.

Larceny Vs. Robbery

Larceny is the basic theft crime in California. It is defined as intentionally taking property that belongs to someone else. That sounds easy enough, but it isn't always simple.

Theft can happen in a hundred different ways, from online identity theft to lifting a phone left in a library to pedaling off on someone else's bicycle. It can be hard to detect, like when someone in a position of trust "borrows" money for her own use intending to return it. Or it can be out there for all to see, like the thief who grabs a computer from a coffee shop table and takes off running.

Robbery is one kind of theft that never passes unnoticed. That's because the element that distinguishes robbery from larceny is the use of force or threatened use of force. The classic example of robbery is that of masked intruders robbing a bank, but there are many variations on the robbery theme.

California Robbery Laws

California robbery law defines the crime in Penal Code Section 211. Robbery involves taking another person's property against her will through the use of threats or force. The property must be taken from the person or in her immediate presence.

Compare this to larceny or theft, defined in California Penal Code Section 484 as simply the intentional act of taking property that belongs to someone else. A theft can happen today that the victim doesn't learn about for months or years, like when someone at a party enters the host's bedroom, picks up some jewelry and carries it off. The thief can accomplish the theft while the victim is on another continent. It can happen with the victim's apparent permission, like when an individual talks an elderly person into signing over ownership of a vehicle, deceitfully promising to pay for it the next day.

Robbery, on the other hand, always involves an overt theft. One person uses force or threats to remove property from the owner's possession. That makes it a violent crime and explains why, unlike regular larceny, it is always charged as a felony, the more serious type of criminal offense in California.

Overlap of Robbery and Larceny

Larceny is not always robbery since some types of theft do not include threats or force, but all robbery constitutes larceny. That's because every theft by force or threat, by definition, includes a theft. If a robbery does not result in a theft, it is attempted robbery, which is also a crime in California.

A few examples help clarify the differences:

It is larceny if someone sees a motorcycle parked on the street at night, hot-wires it and then steals it. It is robbery if someone sees a person parking a motorcycle on the street, approaches him, forces her to hand over the keys and drives off.

A larceny can turn into a robbery in the right circumstances. For example, if someone breaks into a vehicle and grabs a cell phone from it, that's a larceny offense. But if the owner returns during the theft, and the thief threatens her with a weapon in order to escape, it is robbery.

First-Degree Robbery

California robbery laws classify the crime into two levels, first-degree robbery and second-degree robbery. The level of robbery determines the extent of the punishment for the crime.

First-degree robbery is defined as any robbery that includes one or more of these circumstances:

  • The victim of the robbery is a driver or passenger of some transportation for hire, like a bus, taxi, Uber or Lyft, streetcar, trolley or train.

  • The robbery occurs in a structure or vehicle where someone lives, like a house, an apartment, a live-on boat or a tent where people are camping.

  • The robbery occurs at an ATM the victim is using. 

What about a house when nobody is there? Under California robbery laws, a building, vehicle or other structure is considered inhabited if someone lives there and intends to return even if he does not happen to be there at the moment of the theft. That means that any entry into a dwelling unit to steal from the occupant is a first-degree robbery.

Penalties for First-Degree Robbery

In California, first-degree robbery is always a felony. A defendant convicted of first degree robbery can receive felony probation, a fine of up to $10,000, and/or a three-year, four-year or six-year term in California state prison.

The potential prison term increases if a defendant works with others to commit the robbery. That is, if he commits a first-degree robbery of an inhabited structure with two or more fellow robbers, the prison term can be three, six or nine years.

Second-Degree Robbery in California

Second-degree robbery is defined by the California robbery laws as any robbery that doesn't meet the conditions for first-degree robbery. It is still a serious crime and charged as a felony. Even if the second-degree robbery conviction is a first offense, a defendant will receive a punishment of:

  • Felony probation and/or
  • a fine of up to $10,000 and/or
  • a term in state prison of two years, three years or five years. 

Multiple Robbery Charges

A charge of robbery does not depend on how much property is stolen. What if a person enters an occupied home, threatens the occupant, then takes a large selection of electronics, including five computers and three cell phones? Is this one count of first-degree robbery or eight counts? The thief will only be charged with one count. However, if there are multiple victims of the robbery, the defendant can be charged with multiple counts of robbery. For example, if she enters a home, threatens the two people there and takes the cell phone of one of the two, she will be charged with two counts of robbery.

Enhanced Punishment for Gun Use

California penalties for robbery as set out in the statute are the base sentences for the act of robbery. Complicating circumstances can increase the penalties. If the thief uses a gun during the robbery or causes great bodily injury, the potential sentences can go up. These are considered sentence enhancements that add to the punitive consequences of a Penal Code Section 211 robbery conviction.

The California law that sets out increased penalties for those who use guns in the commission of robberies is called the "10-20-Life Use a Gun and You're Done" law. It is found in California Penal Code Section 12022.53.

Under that law, the penalties for committing robbery go up significantly when the thief uses a gun. A judge must sentence someone convicted of using a firearm in a robbery to:

  • 10 years in state prison for personally using a firearm in a robbery.
  • 20 years in state prison for intentionally firing a gun during a robbery.
  • 25 years to life for causing a person great bodily injury or death with a firearm during a robbery.

Great Bodily Injury Enhancement

If a convicted thief causes a robbery victim great bodily harm, his sentence can be increased under California robbery laws, even if he doesn't use a gun. Under California Penal Code Section 12022.7, if a robber causes another person to suffer a substantial physical injury during the robbery, the court can add an additional three to six years to the prison sentence.

California's Three Strikes Law

California enacted the original three strikes sentencing law in 1994. It was intended to substantially raise the prison sentence of a defendant convicted of any new felony if she previously had been convicted of a serious felony. Under that law, the state prison sentence for the second felony would be twice the normal prison term provided for the crime. A conviction of any additional felony would then serve as the "third strike," requiring a judge to impose a state prison term of at least 25 years to life.

In time, Californians began to feel that this law was inequitable and should be changed. People particularly objected to the fact that any felony at all could serve as the third strike. Proposition 36, approved by voters in 2012, substantially amended the law so that the third strike felony had to be a serious or violent felony to trigger the mandatory 25 years to life sentence.

Since a PC Section 211 robbery is deemed a violent felony in California, it can be one of the strikes under the three strikes law. That means if someone has a robbery conviction and is then convicted of any other felony, the jail sentence will be double the normal sentence. It also means that a robbery conviction can serve as a third strike conviction, mandating the sentence of 25 years to life in state prison.

Attempted Robbery in California

Just as robbery is punishable by time in state prison, attempting to commit a robbery is also a crime. Under Penal Code Section 211, read together with Penal Code Sections 664 and 21(a), a person can be charged with attempting robbery in California and sentenced to harsh penalties and incarceration.

Under PC Section 664, anyone who tries to commit a crime but doesn't go through with it is still punished. This is fleshed out by California Penal Code Section 21(a) that specifies the elements of attempting to commit a crime. They are: 1) the defendant in fact intended to commit the crime, and 2) took a direct, unambiguous step toward committing the crime.

Note that the direct step has to be more than just a desire to commit the crime. It must be a clear step toward commission of the crime, a step that would have succeeded absent some intervening cause. If the individual abandons the plan before taking this direct step, she cannot be convicted.

Penalties for Attempted Robbery

California Penal Code Section 664 sets the penalties for attempting a crime at one-half the potential state prison or county jail sentence for the underlying offense and/or half the maximum potential fine.

That means that the penalties for attempted first-degree robbery will be a fine of up to $5,000, and/or an 18-month, two-year or three-year term in California state prison. For attempted second-degree robbery, the penalties are a fine of up to $5,000 and/or a 12-month, 18-month or 30-month term in prison.


  • In California, robbery is defined as the taking of another person's property through the use of force or threat of use of force. Considered a felony, punishment may be probation, a fine and/or prison time.

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