The Legal Dictionary for Writers: Theft, Robbery and Burglary



Hide your wife, hide your kids. Cuz it’s time to talk about stealing.




Three different kinds of stealing we’re going to be concerned with today: theft, robbery and burglary. Unleash the definitions!

Theft: A person commits theft if he or she knowingly obtains or uses, or endeavors to obtain or to use, the property of another with intent to, either temporarily or permanently: (a) Deprive the other person of a right to the property or a benefit from the property or  (b) Appropriate the property to his or her own use or to the use of any person not entitled to the use of the property.

Blah, blah, blah, legalese. Let’s break it down. Essentially, you commit theft if you take someone else’s property and don’t intend to give it back, either forever or for just a short period of time. Stealing a car and intending to strip it for parts is the same as stealing your neighbor’s car for 10 minute joyride. “But I was going to bring it back!” is NOT a defense you want to try on a cop. They won’t care, my friends.

There are varying degrees of theft, and just how much trouble you’re in depends on just how valuable the property you steal is. Over $100,000? You’ve just committed grand theft and are facing a first degree felony, which means you’re staring at a massive fine and up to 30 years in prison (or more, in varying circumstances. A violent carjacking, for instance, could get you life). If what you steal is valued between $20,000 and $100,000, you’ve committed a second degree felony and are facing up to 15 years. Valued between $300 and $20,000 and it’s a third degree felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison. Under $300 and it’s petit theft (not “petty theft”). You could land yourself in jail for up to a year.

(SIDE NOTE: Do we all understand the difference between prison and jail? The terms aren’t interchangeable. Jail is different from prison is different from jail, but it’s a pretty easy distinction. Jails are run by the county. Prisons are run by the state or the federal government. If you’re arrested, you’re taken to jail. If you’re charged with a crime and denied bail, you stay in the jail until your trial. The length of your sentence also determines whether you go to jail or prison. Anything under a year (in most states), it’s jail. More than that, it’s prison. So if you’re an actress who had a wildly successful career a few years ago but blew it all because you’re a hot mess who can’t stay out of trouble, and you’re sentenced to 60 days in jail following a DUI arrest, you’ll serve out your sentence in the jail. But if you were on the hook for stealing, oh I don’t know, a necklace or something and were facing up to three years, you’d be off to prison.

So jail = holding area and/or short sentence. Prison = long sentence. Ok? Ok.)

Robbery: The taking of money or other property which may be the subject of larceny from the person or custody of another, with intent to either permanently or temporarily deprive the person or the owner of the money or other property, when in the course of the taking there is the use of force, violence, assault, or putting in fear.

More legalese, but this is another easy one to understand. If I physically take something from you and use force/violence or assault/otherwise scare you, I’ve committed robbery. Again, it doesn’t matter if I want to steal your iPod forever or just borrow it to listen to Mmm Bop. Also, you should update your playlist.

Again, how much trouble I’m in depends on a number of factors. If I have a deadly weapon, it’s a life felony, meaning I could potentially spend the rest of my life in prison. If I carried a non-deadly weapon, it’s a first-degree felony (<30 years). If I don’t have a weapon, it’s still a second-degree felony (<15 years). Those are some harsh sentences, so moral of the story: Don’t rob people.

Burglary: Entering a dwelling, a structure, or a conveyance with the intent to commit an offense therein, unless the premises are at the time open to the public or the defendant is licensed or invited to enter.

Wow, a statute that’s actually kind of straightforward for once. Refreshing. So if I break into your house in the middle of the night with the intent to steal your stuff, that’s burglary. It’s also burglary if you invite me into your house for a party, but then I go hide in the bathroom until you go to sleep, then sneak out and steal your stuff.

If I’m armed, it’s a life felony. If I’m not, it’s either a second- or third-degree felony depending on a number of weird factors that are specific to the state of Florida so let’s not even go there. Burglary is bad, and you’ll go to jail for a while. Let’s just stick with that.

Questions? Comments? Requests for topics? I think I’m going to cover homicide next. We might have to break that one up into a few segments though, cuz yeah. It’s a pretty wide topic.

(Disclaimer: This is intended for explanatory purposes only and is not legal advice, nor should it be interpreted as such. I’m not your lawyer either. This is all based on Florida law, so if you’re not in Florida, check your state statutes for specific laws about theft, robbery and burglary. They’re likely similar but not exact. And have an awesome day.)

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8 Responses

  1. Susan says:

    “Again, it doesn’t matter if I want to steal your iPod forever or just borrow it to listen to Mmm Bop. Also, you should update your playlist.”

    BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHHAAAAHHHAAA. I love that song, and now I love you for referencing it.

    Also, these posts are AWESOME. So much I didn’t know.

  2. I’m learning so much that I didn’t know I needed to know. This is a great series, Meredith!

  3. Holly says:

    A little Mmm Bop with that robbery sentence, anyone? LOL Love it. This is a great post, and I learned something too!

  4. Love it! It reminds me of Medical Mondays on Lydia Kang’s blog, where she talks about different medical conditions and how they would be realistically portrayed. I like the legal version – especially helpful for mysteries and crime fiction. ;D

  5. Nia says:

    This is such a good and unique post as I think a lot of writers have characters involved in legal entanglements and knowing the right stuff is key. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I’m guilty! I thought it was “petty theft.” (Embarrassing!)

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