Burglary vs Robbery: What’s the Difference and What Does It Mean for Victims?
The words robbery and burglary are often used interchangeably in movies, TV shows, books and the internet. However, burglary and robbery are two very distinct crimes with different criteria, different investigative processes and different implications for the victim.
Read on to understand what the differences are, how to respond if you are victim of either crime, as well as tips on how to protect yourself from becoming a burglary or robbery victim.
What’s the difference between burglary and robbery?
Burglary is classified as a property crime, whereas robbery is considered a violent crime committed against a person. The FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program defines burglary as “unlawful or forcible entry or attempted entry of a structure with the intent to commit a felony or theft.” Though, some states may classify and define burglary slightly differently.
Generally speaking, if a person enters a building without permission and with the intent to commit a crime, this is a burglary.
In contrast, the FBI defines robbery as “taking or attempting to take anything of value from the care, custody, or control of a person or persons by force or threat of force or violence and/or by putting the victim in fear.”
In plain English, if a person takes or tries to take something from another person and has either been violent towards or scared the victim, this is a robbery.
According to FBI figures, burglaries have a clearance rate of just 12.9%, which means the chances the crime being solved or property returned are low. If something very distinctive is stolen, it may be easier to trace. In addition, a string of burglaries in an area may justify dedicating further resources to solving the crimes.
A crime is considered burglary if it meets all of the following criteria:
Unlawful entry occurs
To be classed as an unlawful entry, a person must enter a private building without express permission. Unlawful entry also applies to buildings which are usually open to the public but were closed at the time the burglary occurred.
Forcible entry occurs
Any action taken in order to gain entry to a building, other than walking in through an open door, or climbing in through an open window, is a forcible entry. A burglar does not have to break a window or smash down a door, just turning a door handle or sliding aside a screen door is enough.
Actual entry or constructive entry occurs
A person does not have to fully enter a building to commit a burglary. As soon as any part of their body is inside the structure the crime is committed. So, a hand reaching inside a doorway is enough. If the burglar uses a tool to gain entry, as soon as that tool enters the building, the crime becomes burglary.
- Actual entry is committed when a body part or a tool enters the structure.
- Constructive entry occurs when someone has not entered the building themselves but has caused someone else to do so. For example, a person standing watch outside who has given a fellow criminal a boost to get into a house is guilty of constructive entry, even though they remain outside.
People or property could be inside the structure
This does not have to be a house or other type of home; it can be any structure that is capable of sheltering people or property. Some states distinguish between a commercial or residential burglary, but this is generally for statistical purposes.
Intent to commit a crime is proven
To be considered burglary, the burglar must enter with the intent to commit a crime, and this intent must be proven. If a person enters with the intent of committing a crime, changes their mind and leaves, a burglary was still committed because the intent to commit a crime was there.
In contrast, if a person commits a crime at the spur of the moment, it is not burglary. For example, if your neighbor enters your home with the intent of having a coffee with you and, while there, decides to steal your purse, the crime is considered theft but not burglary.
Any felony or theft occurs
The intended crime which may occur during a burglary is not limited to theft; any felony is applicable. Generally speaking, a felony is any offense for which more than one year’s imprisonment is authorized, although, again, this may vary slightly from state to state.
More resources are devoted to the investigation of a robbery than a burglary, as it is considered a violent crime. These crimes have a 29.3% clearance rate, meaning they are more likely to solved compared to burglary, particularly in the cases where a distinct item was taken. Robberies where a person has been severely injured also merit greater resources for finding the culprit.
Robbery is classified as a violent crime and consequently carries stiffer sentences than burglary. Criminal laws vary very slightly across the country, with some states distinguishing different types of robbery such as:
- Home invasion – A robbery committed inside a residence while people are inside
- Car-jacking – Stealing a vehicle while a person is inside it
- Muggings – Stealing from a person on the street
- Armed robbery – Any kind of robbery that is committed while the perpetrator is in possession of a deadly weapon
A crime is considered robbery if it meets all of the following criteria:
Taking or attempting to take property
The crime does not have to be successful (from the criminal’s point of view) for it to count as a robbery. If a person tries to snatch a purse but is unsuccessful, that person has still committed robbery.
Taking anything of value (including non-monetary value)
Monetary value is often used to decide how serious the offense is, but the stolen item does not have to be worth money. For example, if a necklace holds sentimental value and is snatched from its owner’s neck, it doesn’t matter that it iss worthless, financially speaking, it is still considered robbery.
Property is taken from its owner or another’s care
The property taken does not have to be owned by the robbery victim. For example, when a criminal breaks into a safety deposit box, it is considered robbery (as long as all of the other criteria of a robbery are met). The contents of the box belong to the owner but are in the custody of the bank that holds the box.
Similarly, a victim does not have to be holding the item. For example, if a robber tells a store clerk to go out the back and then steals the contents of the cash register, it is still a robbery, even though the cash register is no longer in the presence of the clerk.
Property must be taken from a person
A robbery is not committed unless something is actually taken from someone. If a criminal breaks into a home and steals something, but there is nobody home, it cannot be a robbery, but it could be a burglary.
The victim is hurt or scared
The victim of a robbery doesn’t have to suffer any injury for the crime to be considered robbery. Force or violence can include:
- A push or a shove
- Being told, “Give me your money or I’ll use my knife.”
- Snatching an item from a victim’s hands
The implied threat of force or violence is enough. For example, if a robber reveals a gun but doesn’t threaten to use it, it is reasonable to assume they might and this is a threat of violence.
What does the difference mean for victims?
The differences between a burglary and a robbery have implications for how victims should respond in each case, in addition to how the crime will be investigated and the kind of help a victim might receive afterward. Keep reading to learn what to do if you’re the victim of a burglary or a robbery, as well as what to expect from law enforcement during your investigation.
What should I do if my home is burglarized?
If your home is burglarized, you should immediately call the police to begin an investigation into the crime. Be sure to wait until the police have conducted their initial investigation before touching anything or cleaning up. A uniformed officer will come to your home and ask you questions like:
- How did the burglar enter?
- Was there anyone home?
- Was anything broken or damaged?
- What was taken?
- Did anyone know you weren’t home?
- Have you had unusual callers at your door?
- Have you noticed anything unusual in the neighborhood?
During the investigation, a law enforcement officer will document your answers, make observations while inside and outside of your home and may collect physical evidence. For most burglaries, however, victims should not expect a CSI-like team or investigation of the crime scene.
Once the initial investigation is complete, you will be given a contact number for follow-up information. Law enforcement may also question neighbors or other potential witnesses. This may occur during the initial visit or on a followup visit.
In addition to filing a police report, burglary victims should take the following steps:
- Take photos of any damage for your insurance company
- List all damage and items stolen
- Review security around your home
If you have home insurance, being the victim of a burglary may also impact your insurance premiums, something that could be offset by the installation of a home security system.
What should I do if I’m robbed?
You should call 9-1-1 immediately if you are the victim of a robbery. Be sure to wait in a safe location for law enforcement and emergency support to arrive to the scene. If you require immediate medical attention, seek help.
In addition, ask any witnesses to stay at the scene until police arrive. Make note of everything that happened as soon as possible. It’s important not to tamper with any evidence, so do not tidy or clean the crime scene before law enforcement arrives.
Be prepared to answer questions from law enforcement, including but not limited to:
- What happened during the robbery?
- What happened before the robbery?
- Which direction did the robber go?
- How did the robber leave the scene (on foot, in a car, etc.)?
- What did the robber look like? What were they wearing?
- What was taken from you?
- Were you are injured, and if so, how?
- Law enforcement may also request copies of your medical records detailing your treatment after the crime.
Ask the law enforcement officer for details on who to contact afterwards to followup on your case. If you receive medical treatment, ask the doctor to detail and clearly explain your injuries to you. You should expect follow-up visits from the detective investigating your case if you required medical attention.
Additionally, you may qualify for help from your local crime victim compensation board. This assistance can include payment of medical bills, victim advocacy services and support groups to help you recover from your crime.
How to avoid becoming a burglary or robbery victim
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees to keep you or a loved one from becoming the victim of a crime. However, there are some things you can do to reduce the risk of having your home burglarized or being robbed. For example, you can install a home security system to protect your home from burglars and unwanted intruders. You may also want to keep expensive jewelry, smartphones and other high price tag items locked up or out of site, especially, while you’re out and about.
Michael Fraser, presenter of the BBC series Beat the Burglar, author of How Safe Is Your Home and a reformed burglar turned home security expert offers this advice to protect your home from burglary:
“Thieves are opportunists. They will scan your house and take a mental photograph of what they can see through your windows, whether your garden gate is open, what lock is on your front door, whether you’ve left the keys hanging in it. You don’t need to have hi-tech cameras everywhere – you just have to be sensible. Think like a burglar, and you’ll see where your weaknesses lie.”
Robbery is a more dangerous crime, which means it’s even more important to take measures to avoid becoming a victim. Mike Cahn, retired New Orleans Police Department SWAT commander and security expert explain hows to decrease your chance of becoming a target for a robbery:
“The biggest thing is being aware of your surroundings. Most of the time when we have interviewed the criminals who are out there committing robberies, they didn’t approach the people that were looking right at them or paying attention to them. The criminals were looking for the person whose head was down. They were looking in their purse, or they were on the phone, and they weren’t really paying attention so that they could sneak up on them.”