Burglary vs. Robbery: What’s The Difference?

A man using a crowbar to break into a house.

“Help, help, I’ve been robbed!” This is a very common phrase we’re all familiar with, and it is often spoken when someone’s house has been broken into. In reality what the person actually means is, “Help, help, I’ve been burglarized!” People often assume robbery and burglary to mean the same thing, but in actuality, they are different crimes in criminal law. Burglary is the correct term for when someone has entered the home of another without permission in order to commit a crime, usually theft. Robbery, on the other hand, is when someone takes or threatens to take something from another by force.


What Is Burglary?

A burglar using a flashlight inside a house with a wallet in the foreground.

Burglary is the unlawful entry into a place or dwelling with the intent to commit a theft crime or felony therein. What this means is that:


  1. The burglar does not have permission to enter the building and
  2. The burglar intends to commit a crime in that building.


There are some things to clarify with this definition, though. First of all, the burglar doesn’t have the right to be there, so it’s different, for example, from shoplifting, where the thief does have permission to be in the store, just not to steal. Secondly, the building can be someone’s home, but it doesn’t have to be; it could be someone’s car or office, or a commercial building that is sometimes open to the public, but the burglar comes after hours. But, this does not necessarily mean that the burglar has used a forcible entry either. They could enter through an unlocked door or window without causing damage. Next, the burglar must intend to commit some crime inside. Otherwise, they are just trespassing. The crime is often some type of theft, meaning the burglar intends to steal something and depending on the value, it could be petty theft or grand theft. But, the burglar doesn’t have to steal or even intend to steal. They could intend to commit some other serious crime such as assault, rape, or murder. And finally, the burglar doesn’t have to be successful in committing this crime. They just have to have intended to commit it, even if they don’t follow through, such as if they are caught in the act by law enforcement.



What Is Robbery?

A masked man with a knife threatening another man who is sitting in his car.

Robbery is the taking of something of value from another’s person by the use of force or the threat of force. What this means is that:

  1. The robber intends to steal money or some valuable personal property from another,
  2. The robber took it from the person’s body or in the person’s presence, and
  3. The robber did so by violence or the threat of violence against the person.

Let’s clarify this definition a bit more. The robber has to try to steal, but likely with burglary, doesn’t have to ultimately be successful in their theft. Also, what they take can have monetary value, such as a cellphone or car, but doesn’t have to. It could also be something with non-monetary value, such as copyright or equipment. Most importantly, the victim, or person being robbed, has to be aware that the robbery is taking place. The robber has to at least threaten to inflict bodily injuries on the victim, such as from the presence of a deadly weapon like a gun or a knife. If the victim does not know that their money or property is being stolen, such as from a pickpocketer, then it is a crime of theft, not robbery. The threat or use of force is essential for a robbery charge.


What’s The Difference Between Burglary And Robbery?

With both crimes, it is almost always the case that the offender is stealing something from a victim, which is why people often confuse the two. But, the simplest way to distinguish the crime of burglary and the crime of robbery is to answer: Was the victim present and aware at the time of the crime? 

With a burglary, the victim does not need to be there at the time of the burglary, and most often times they are not. The burglar breaks into the victim’s home or office intending to commit their crime, which is often but not necessarily, to steal something. Although the victim can be present, they don’t have to be. Often times a burglar wants to sneak in to commit their crime while their victim is away, and the victim isn’t aware they are the victim of a burglary until they return home. This is what makes burglary a crime against property and not a crime against a person.

However, with a robbery, the victim must be present. The robber is taking something from the victim, usually from their person, by force or the threat of force. Think of the classic bank robbery scenario where the bank teller is told they are being robbed, and the robbers hold them up at gunpoint. In a robbery, the victim is afraid of the robber’s threat and is aware that the crime is happening because they are a part of it. This is what makes robbery a crime against a person, and not a crime against property.

Finally, there are instances where these two crimes can overlap, for example, in a home invasion. In that situation, the criminals commit burglary by unlawfully entering the home, and commit a robbery by stealing from the victim with the threat or use of force.


Potential Consequences

A prisoner wearing an orange jumpsuit is standing next to his lawyer, talking to a judge at her bench.

While the potential consequences for robbery and burglary vary by state law, here are the average penalties for these two felony charges.

  • Robbery: Criminal charges for robbery are often separated into two levels: first-degree robbery, also called armed robbery or aggravated robbery, and second-degree robbery. This is because most states agree that there are certain factors when the crime of robbery is committed that make it a more serious offense and should therefore be punished more severely. Here are some of those factors:
    • The robber is armed with a deadly weapon,
    • The robber displays a firearm or deadly weapon,
    • The robber causes bodily injury or death while committing the crime, or
    • The robber robs a financial institution.

Based on the degree of the robbery charge, defendants can face substantial fines and anywhere from a 5-30 year prison sentence depending on the state. 

  • Burglary: As with robbery, criminal charges for burglary are also often separated into levels, and some states have as many as three, four, or five degrees for the crime of burglary, depending on the circumstances surrounding the crime, such 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.

Burglary charges are not usually as high as robbery charges, averaging a 3-10 year prison sentence. And, in some states, burglary charges can even go as low as a misdemeanor charge where defendants can face up to a $1,000 fine and up to 1 year in jail.


How To Protect Yourself From Being Robbed Or Burglarized

No one wants to be the victim of a theft, burglary, or robbery, and while it is wrong to blame someone for being the victim of a crime, there are ways to protect yourself from being robbed or burglarized. Both crimes are crimes of convenience, meaning it’s important to limit the opportunities a burglar or robber would have to take advance of you.

There are things one can do to lessen the likelihood of falling victim to a break-in, such as locking doors and windows, building fences, closing garage doors, and hiding valuables from sight. Another good way to protect yourself from being robbed or burglarized is by installing cameras and home security systems on your property to discourage potential opportunists.


Sample Scenarios Of Burglary & Robbery 

Jane leaves her private office, forgetting to lock the door, and goes home for the night. Roger goes into Jane’s office and steals her computer. Even though the door was unlocked and he didn’t actually have to use force to enter, Roger still committed the crime of burglary. It also doesn’t matter that it was Jane’s office and not her home, as burglary just specific that it is a building or dwelling where Roger didn’t have permission to be.

Let’s play with these facts a little to better understand the meaning of these two crimes. Imagine instead that when Roger entered Jane’s office and reached for the computer, the janitor entered. The janitor sees Roger and calls security. Even though Roger didn’t complete the act of stealing the computer, he still committed the crime of burglary because he entered the room without permission and with the intent to steal Jane’s computer.

Now let’s say that instead of stealing her computer, Roger goes onto her computer to access the company files. He then embezzles money from the company to his account, but through Jane’s computer thinking he won’t get caught. This is still a burglary because even though Roger didn’t steal anything tangible, he still committed a felony.

Next, imagine Roger only thought that Jane had gone home for the night and went into her office intending to steal her computer. However, Jane is still in her office. Roger wants Jane’s computer badly, and so regardless of her presence, he still plans to steal it. He then threats to strike Jane if she doesn’t let him have it, so she runs away, and Roger takes the computer. Now Roger has committed both the crime of burglary and the crime of robbery. He still entered her office without permission intending to steal, and then he stole something in her presence by the threat of violence. It doesn’t matter if Jane was holding the laptop or if it was on her desk, or if she ran away. It also doesn’t matter that Roger didn’t actually strike Jane, as long as Jane was in fear that he would make good on his threat, it is still a robbery.

Now, if Roger had pointed a gun at Jane, rather than threatening to strike her, he not only committed the crime of robbery, but he committed armed robbery, a first-degree felony, and would face a more serious prison sentence.

However, let’s take a step back and imagine that Jane was still in her office but that she had fallen asleep at her desk. Roger was able to enter quietly and still take her laptop. In that case, it would not be a robbery because even though she was present, Jane was unaware the crime was taking place. It would still be a burglary crime, though, and in most states, it would be a more serious burglary, a second-degree felony, because the office was occupied.


The Bottom Line

Burglary and robbery are similar but not the same crime. Burglary is the unlawful entry into a place with the purpose to commit a theft or felony, and robbery is the unlawful taking of something of value, from a person, by threat or use of force.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is a property crime?

A property crime is a crime committed involving things, not people. Shoplifting, larceny, receiving stolen property, and burglary are all property crimes where items of value are stolen, but the owner need not be involved. Other property crimes include arson and vandalism. Property crimes are different from personal crimes, which are committed against people. Some examples of personal crimes include assault, battery, rape, kidnapping, homicide, and robbery.


Is burglary a violent crime?

While burglary is often not considered a violent crime, that doesn’t mean it never can be. Most of the time, the crime of burglary is committed when the victim is away from the home or dwelling at the time of the burglary, but they don’t have to be. In almost all burglary cases, the burglar enters without permission with the intent to commit a crime therein. Often it is theft, but a burglar can enter a home with the intent to commit battery, sexual assault, or any other crime against the victim’s person. In those instances, burglary is certainly considered to be a violent crime.


Is a bank robbery a robbery or a burglary?

In some situations, a bank robbery is a robbery, and in others, it’s a burglary. Think back to the example where someone walks up to a bank teller, during banking hours, holds up a gun, and says they are robbing the bank. In that instance, we have all the elements of an armed robbery because the robber intends to steal from the bank and is threatening someone with a deadly weapon to do it. However, imagine if, instead of entering the bank during banking hours, this person decided to break in at night when the bank was closed, and there was no one there. In that case, it would be burglary because even though the intent to steal was the same, the burglar did not have permission to be there after hours.

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