Varying terms are tossed around to describe the act of taking someone's property without permission. While theft and stealing are often used interchangeably to characterize the same illegal acts, you might wonder what constitutes larceny and burglary. The terminology does share some basic similarities, but each term is distinguished according to the type of property involved and the manner in which it is taken.
Theft is the Broad Crime of Stealing
Theft involves the unauthorized taking of a person's property for your own use, and with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the asset. The definition of theft is broad and encompasses any act of taking something without the right to do so. For example, shoplifting is a type of theft, but so is a dine and dash: if you eat at a restaurant and leave without paying the bill, it's a theft. The same is true if you get a haircut and refuse to pay. Taking possession, or receiving, property that you know or should know is stolen is also considered a form of theft.
Larceny Means Stealing Physical Objects
Larceny and theft are often considered synonyms. However, in many states, "larceny" has a more narrow definition and refers only to the taking of physical objects, which excludes certain types of theft, such as the theft of services. While state laws vary, the punishment for theft and larceny is usually based on the value of the goods taken, with lower value property considered as "petty" theft and higher value items as grand theft or grand larceny. Petty theft convictions generally result in misdemeanor charges, leading to a maximum jail sentence of one year. However, in most states, such as Georgia, a grand theft or grand larceny conviction can result in a one- to 10-year jail sentence.
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If There's Breaking and Entering, It's Burglary
Burglary is another type of theft, characterized by the manner in which the crime occurs. A person commits a burglary if he unlawfully enters a home or other structure at any time with the intent to steal property – regardless of its value – or to commit another crime, usually a felony. Although the crime technically requires the perpetrator to "break" into the structure, in most states, an act as slight as climbing through an open window or entering an unlocked door is sufficient. Burglary is a more serious crime than normal theft or larceny and is treated as a felony in most states. The amount of jail time you could receive is often increased based on the circumstances of the burglary, such as if there were people in the home when you entered or if the entry was at night. The crime of burglary is complete upon breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony; you don't have to actually steal anything to be charged with burglary in most states.
Robbery is Another Type of Theft
States often have separate statutes addressing other forms of stealing. Specifically, a theft that involves the use of physical force is considered robbery, which is punished more severely than normal theft due to the potential for harm to the victim. Embezzlement, which often occurs in the business context – such as stealing from your employer – also typically results in harsher penalties because the offender breaches his duty of trust. Finally, the type of item stolen may result in increased penalties, regardless of how the theft occurred or the value of the item. In Georgia, for example, the theft of a firearm results in an automatic felony charge.
Theft is a broad term used to describe any type of stealing. Larceny, on the other hand, specifically involves the taking of physical objects but does not include theft of intangibles. Burglary occurs whenever someone breaks and enters onto a property in order to steal something.
Wayne Thomas earned his J.D. from Penn State University and has been practicing law since 2008. He has experience writing about environmental topics, music and health, as well as legal issues. Since 2011, Thomas has also served as a contributing editor for the "Vermont Environmental Monitor."