Burglary Basics

The crime of burglary defined, with real-world examples.

The crime of burglary involves illegally entering a building with the intent to commit a crime while inside.

Criminal laws in each state provide specific definitions of burglary. In the past, many jurisdictions defined burglary as using force to break a lock or window to get into someone’s home during the nighttime hours. Today, though, burglary laws are generally much broader. Read on to learn more about modern definitions of the offense and to see some real-world examples.

Legal Definition of Burglary

Although the exact definition of burglary may be a little different from state to state, the crime typically involves a culprit:

  • entering
  • a building
  • without permission
  • with the intent to commit a felony or steal property while inside (even if the theft itself would only be a misdemeanor).

Burglary is distinguished from less serious crimes such as criminal trespass in that, with burglary, the prosecution has to prove that a defendant intended to commit a qualifying crime inside the building at the very moment of entry.

Burglary is almost always a felony. Most states divide the crime into degrees of severity, depending on certain factors. The danger of physical injury is greatest when a burglar enters an inhabited building so, in many states, this constitutes first degree burglary. Under some statutes, entry at night rather than in the daytime also constitutes a first degree burglary, regardless of whether the building is inhabited.

The "Entering" and "Building" Requirements

In the past, burglary laws required the government to prove that a defendant forced open a door, window, or some other part of a building to get inside. Today, though, going into a building through an open window or an unlocked door is usually enough for a burglary conviction. And even a partial entry can constitute burglary. For example, assume that the police arrest a suspect who is reaching an arm through an open window to steal something. If the other requirements are met, the suspect can be convicted of burglary.

Similarly, old burglary laws typically applied only to homes—and then only if the crime occurred at night. Burglary laws now extend to almost all kinds of structures and can even include portable ones like cars, boats, and mobile homes. Nowadays, for instance, illegally entering a barn at noon in order to steal something from inside can result in a burglary conviction.

Intent to Commit a Crime

The word "burglary" probably calls to mind a masked crook with a sack breaking into a residence in order to steal money or property. In reality, although burglaries often involve theft, a person need not steal anything to be convicted of the offense. Under most states’ laws, illegally entering a building with the goal of committing a felony or some type of theft qualifies as a burglary—and, in some states, illegally entering a building with the intent to commit any crime will do. For example, a suspect may enter a building with the intent to burn it down or molest a child. Both are sufficient for a burglary conviction.

As long as a person enters a building intending to commit a crime, it's still a burglary even if the person is arrested or scared off before the crime can take place. On the other hand, it may be some other offense—but not burglary—if a culprit first decides to commit a crime only after entering a building.

Burglary: Case Example 1

Facts: Phil is charged with burglary. The prosecution claims that Phil, wanting a birthday present for his girlfriend, went into a drugstore and took a bottle of perfume. Phil admits to taking the bottle and asks the judge to convict him only of petty theft, a misdemeanor.

Verdict: Phil can be convicted of burglary if the prosecution proves that Phil intended to steal the perfume at the moment he entered the drugstore. One way the prosecution might prove Phil's intent to steal is to show that Phil told a friend ahead of time that he planned to steal the perfume. Another way the prosecution might prove Phil's intent to steal is to show that he went into the drugstore carrying a large sack in which he could conceal the perfume bottle.

Burglary: Case Example 2

Facts: Klaus enters the home of his ex-wife Wilma by climbing through a window. Klaus has threatened to harm his wife in the past, and he has a tire iron in his back pocket. Wilma hears Klaus coming, runs to a neighbor's house, and calls the police. The police arrest Klaus as he tries to run away through the back door.

Verdict: Klaus has committed burglary. Klaus entered Wilma's house without consent. The prior threats and the tire iron are circumstantial evidence showing that at the moment Klaus entered Wilma’s home, he intended to attack her with a deadly weapon.

Now, assume that Klaus offers evidence at trial that, at the time he climbed through Wilma's window, he'd been drinking heavily for three days and was too drunk to understand what he was doing. In some states, Klaus's evidence could constitute a partial defense to a burglary charge. To be convicted of burglary, Klaus must have had a specific intent to commit a crime. Some states would allow Klaus to claim that he was so intoxicated that he was unable to form the required intent. The defense would be a partial one because Klaus could still be convicted of the lesser crime of breaking into Wilma's home.

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