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Some use the term “robbery” when a “burglary” has happened, and vice versa. The words actually refer to different crimes, with their own legal definitions and penalties.

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Imagine that a family returns home from a night out to find the front door ajar. The family members walk inside to discover that jewelry and other items are missing. When they call the police, what are they reporting? A robbery or a burglary?

While people often use the terms “burglary” and “robbery” interchangeably, the words actually have meaningful differences. Burglary involves a person illegally entering a building in order to commit a crime while inside; robbery is generally when someone takes something of value directly from another person by the use of force or fear.

So, to answer the question, the family home has been burglarized.

Robbery is a crime where someone takes something of value directly from someone else. While laws vary by state, the typical elements of the crime are :

  • taking money or property
  • directly from someone
  • without permission
  • with the intent to keep the property permanently
  • through the use of force or intimidation.

The Crime of Burglary

States also define burglary slightly differently. But the offense usually has the following elements:

  • illegally entering
  • a building (usually a home or business)
  • with the intent to steal something or commit a felony while inside.


In the past, most states defined burglary as forcibly breaking into another person’s home at night. Today, though, burglary statutes are generally much broader. Normally, someone can commit burglary by simply entering any type of building without permission at any time of day while intending to commit a crime once inside.

As you can see above, robbery and burglary have distinct elements. For instance, one crime doesn’t have to involve a building, while the other does. Below are a couple other key differences.


Although burglary often involves theft, a person doesn’t have to steal anything to be convicted of the crime. Robbery, on the other hand, almost always involves theft—the defendant takes or tries to take something from the victim.

Under many burglary laws, the intended crime must be a felony or some form of theft, but some states say that a person who enters a building without permission and intends to commit any crime inside is guilty of burglary. For instance, illegally entering a building with the intent to commit an assault can be the basis for a burglary conviction.

Burglary and robbery also differ when it comes to the use of force. Force, whether against a person or to get into a building, generally isn’t required for a burglary conviction. Robbery, though, necessarily involves the use of force—or at least intimidation—against another person.

In order to be convicted of robbery, someone must use violence or the threat of violence to take something of value directly from another. For example, suppose a man armed with a knife demands money from a gas station attendant and then runs away with the cash. The man has just committed robbery because he used the threat of force to steal money directly from the victim.

Potential Penalties

As with the definitions of robbery and burglary, penalties vary by state. Generally, though, both are considered serious crimes and convictions can result in stiff punishments. Most states divide robbery and burglary offenses into degrees of severity, depending on factors such as whether a weapon is involved or the crime results in someone getting hurt.

In most states, robbery is always a felony. A robbery conviction can result in significant prison time and hefty fines, especially if the crime involves a weapon. For instance, Maine’s law states that robbery is punishable by a maximum of ten years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000. A conviction for armed robbery in that state is classified as a more serious crime and can lead to a sentence of up to 30 years in prison and a fine of as much as $50,000. (Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 17-A, §§ 651, 1252, 1301 (2017).)

As with robbery, in most cases burglary is a felony. State laws tend to divide burglary into different levels of seriousness, depending on such factors as:

  • the type of crime the burglar intended to commit inside the building
  • whether the burglar was armed with a weapon
  • the type of building involved, and
  • whether the building was occupied at the time.

In Hawaii, for example, a burglar who is armed with a weapon, harms someone during the crime, or enters a residence (as opposed to an office, for example) can be sentenced to as many as ten years in prison and fined up to $25,000. (Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 706-640, 706-660, 708-810 (2017).)

Again, criminal statutes and penalties can vary widely by state. For more information on burglary and robbery, and to learn about the laws in your area, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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