Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib

Top 3 Differences Between Theft, Burglary, and Robbery


In pop culture, the terms “theft,” “robbery,” and “burglary” are often used interchangeably. However, they’re very different crimes in the eyes of California law. These charges can lead to significantly different penalties depending on the circumstances.

The range of penalties for each crime means that having a robbery charge converted to burglary or reduced to theft can make a significant difference in many court cases. Here’s what you need to know about these three charges, what makes them unique, and how they can affect you if you’ve been charged with a crime.

What Is Theft?

Theft is the act of taking someone’s property without their consent. It is an umbrella term for multiple other crimes, ranging from shoplifting to grand theft.

  • Petty theft is the act of taking someone’s property worth less than $950 without their consent and without returning it. This crime is a misdemeanor.
  • Grand theft is the act of stealing more than $950 or taking property such as a firearm or a vehicle, and it’s a felony. Stolen wages can also be grand theft if an employer withholds more than $950 in earnings or labor from an employee.

What Is Robbery?

Robbery is theft that is specifically enabled by the threat of force. In a robbery, the perpetrator harms or threatens to harm the victim to take their possessions. It’s divided into three categories, each of which is a felony.

  • First-degree robbery applies to stealing something by force while in someone’s home, on transportation, or at an ATM.
  • Second-degree robbery applies to robberies performed anywhere else.
  • Armed or aggravated robbery occurs when someone uses a gun, injures, or kills someone during the course of the crime.

What Is Burglary?

Burglary is slightly different. In a burglary charge, there’s no requirement for the defendant to have allegedly stolen anything. Burglary is a crime of intent. It’s defined as entering a structure intending to commit a felony. Examples include entering a business after hours to steal more than $950 worth of goods or breaking into a warehouse to vandalize it. Burglary can be a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances.

Shoplifting is closely related to burglary. It is the act of visiting a store or other commercial establishment during regular business hours with the intent to commit larceny, or take that establishment’s property. It is a misdemeanor for amounts under $950, but it is elevated to a felony burglary charge if the amount to be stolen exceeds that.

What Makes Theft, Burglary, and Robbery Different?

Clearly, these three crimes aren’t the same, but they often overlap. It’s not unusual for someone to be charged with grand theft and robbery or burglary, which can be confusing for the accused. Here’s how to tell these charges apart.

1. Burglary Doesn’t Require Stealing

While burglary is closely associated with stealing, there’s no need for someone to steal anything to be charged with this crime. It’s considered a crime of intent. Someone can be charged as a burglar even if they never committed a felony.

Furthermore, the alleged intended felony does not need to be stealing, either. Burglary covers entering a structure without permission to do things like:

  • Threaten, assault or kill someone
  • Commit felony property damage
  • Sell or traffic drugs

In short, entering somewhere without the property owner’s permission to commit another crime is often enough to warrant a burglary charge.

2. Theft Requires Specific Intent

Theft cannot be done by accident. For someone to be convicted of petty or grand theft, it must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that they intended to take the victim’s property and keep it for a significant length of time. This can include “borrowing” a car without permission and using it for hours or days, leaving a restaurant without paying, or purposefully failing to pay workers.

Theft does not include borrowing something with permission and forgetting to return it. Neither does it include accidentally walking off with something without paying. For instance, accidentally leaving a store without paying for your items is not stealing as long as you return to pay for them when you realize what you’ve done.

3. Robbery Requires Threats

Robbery is the most serious of the three charges. It is always a felony because of the inherent violence of the crime. Any mugging where the perpetrator makes the victim fear for their safety can be a robbery. For instance, telling someone to hand over their cellphone “or else” is often enough grounds for a charge. Even if the robber doesn’t intend to follow through on the threats, they are still committing a robbery.

Why the Differences Between Robbery, Burglary, and Theft Matter

The reason why the differences between these crimes matter is simple. You can significantly reduce the potential penalties of a conviction by getting charges changed from one to another.

Suppose you have been charged with a robbery for stealing a $400 phone. You can potentially have the charge lowered to petty theft if you can prove there were no threats or harm involved in the incident. This reduces a felony crime to a misdemeanor, which reduces the potential sentence from five years in prison, a $10,000 fine to six months in jail and a fine of $1000. You may be able to get a burglary charge dismissed entirely if you can reduce an associated felony theft or robbery charge to a misdemeanor.

Fight Back Against Theft, Burglary, and Robbery Charges with Expert Legal Representation

You need to be an active participant in the legal proceedings to have a chance of avoiding a conviction. One of the best ways to remain involved in the process is to understand your charges and the potential consequences of each. At the Law Offices of Gabriela Guraiib, we will help you understand your situation, rights, and options during your criminal trial.

Our expert criminal defense attorney helps clients by fighting to reduce charges to minimize the potential penalties they may face. You can call our Redwood City office at 650-227-9132 or send an email to learn more about how we will fight for you in court and pursue the best possible outcome from your trial.