What Is the Difference Between Larceny & Theft?

Car thief, car theft
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Everyone knows that the law frowns on those who take other people's property, but the definitions and distinctions between different types of stealing can be confusing. Two words that are related are "theft" and "larceny," but they are not always legally interchangeable. Generally, all larceny is theft, but not all theft is larceny. However, the definitions of the two words vary quite significantly by jurisdiction.

Different Terms for Stealing Crimes

Theft, larceny, robbery and burglary are just four of many words associated with the taking of property. Although it would be nice to be able to pin down the exact meaning of each, such precision is difficult to attain. That's because states define the terms differently, so what is classified as theft in one state might be larceny in another.

In many states, "theft" is an umbrella term that includes all different kinds of criminal taking. This is the case in New York. Under the New York Codes, theft can be any type of taking, like identity theft, theft of intellectual property, theft of services and theft of personal property. On the other hand, that code defines larceny as a theft of personal property capable of being possessed and carried away.

What Is Larceny?

The definition of larceny, like that of theft, varies between jurisdictions. Under the laws of some states as well as the American Law Institute's Model Penal Code (which has been adopted in various forms by many of the states), larceny is one type of stealing under the general category of theft. The crime involves four elements:

  1. an unlawful taking and carrying away
  2. of property belonging to someone else
  3. without that person's consent
  4. in an attempt to permanently deprive the owner of the property.

Larceny crimes are often categorized according to the fair market value of the personal property taken. If the value of the property is small, it is called "petit" or petty larceny. It is grand larceny if the value of the property taken exceeds the state limit for petty larceny. This varies among states, since each makes its own laws about the value amount that distinguishes a grand larceny from a petty larceny.

Some larcenies are charged as felonies (serious crimes), while others are considered misdemeanors, or smaller crimes. This distinction is usually also dependent on the fair market value of the property stolen.

Read More: The Differences Between Larceny, Burglary & Theft

Variations on the Theme

Not every state follows this distinction between theft and larceny that classifies larceny as a type of theft. In Massachusetts, for example, the crime of theft is referred to as larceny. The Massachusetts criminal code defines larceny as stealing the property of another. It can be a misdemeanor or a felony. Common felony theft crimes in this state include larceny by stealing from a person or building, larceny by check, larceny of leased or rented property, larceny of a motor vehicle and larceny by embezzlement.

This approach is slightly different from that taken by the FBI. In the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, "larceny-theft" is defined as the unlawful taking, carrying, leading, or riding away of property from the possession or constructive possession of another, where the taking is not by force or by fraud. This would include thefts of things like bicycles or motor vehicles, as well as shoplifting and pocket-picking. It would not include embezzlement, forgery or check fraud.

Robbery and Burglary

Both robbery and burglary are also theft crimes, but involve more criminal elements. Robbery usually is defined as a theft from a person of property in his possession or control using force or the threat of force. For example, if a thief forces a bank cashier to hand over money from the till by threatening her with a gun, it is robbery.

Burglary is called a theft crime, but it doesn't have to include a theft. Someone commits burglary if he enters a structure or dwelling unit with the intention of committing a crime inside. The intended crime need not be a theft. So if someone breaks into your house for the purpose of vandalizing your living room, the crime is still a burglary, even if they don't take anything.


  • Theft and larceny are related terms, but not identical. Generally, theft is an umbrella term that includes all types of stealing activity, while, to constitute larceny, the theft must be of personal property.

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