The crimes of theft and robbery can easily be confused because both involve taking someone else's money or property. However, while theft and robbery share some characteristics, the offenses are quite different.
Theft is a crime against property, whereas robbery is a crime against a person. Robbery encompasses a theft (or attempted theft) plus force or intimidation. It is the use or theft of force that makes robbery, in most cases, the more serious crime.
This article will review the definitions and penalties for theft and robbery, along with the similarities and differences between the two crimes. (Burglary also shares similarities with these two crimes. To learn more, check out this article on the differences between robbery and burglary.)
Theft—called larceny in some states—is a broad term that can cover a wide variety of criminal offenses. For example, shoplifting and stealing a motorcycle are both forms of theft.
The typical elements of theft or larceny are a person:
While most people associate theft with taking property, the crime can also involve the stealing of services or even someone's identity. Other common types of theft include fraud and embezzlement.
In many states, theft or larceny can be either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the type of stolen property or its value. Misdemeanor thefts might be referred to as petty or petit theft and involve stolen property valued under $1,000 or $2,000. A person convicted of petty theft might face up to a year in jail or spend time on probation. Felony thefts—also called grand theft—involve any amount over the misdemeanor threshold. Grand theft can involve a wide range of sentences from a couple of years to a decade or more in prison. States vary considerably when it comes to theft penalties.
Robbery refers to stealing or attempting to steal something from a victim by force or intimidation.
The typical elements of robbery are someone taking money or property:
A robbery could involve a bank holdup, carjacking, or even a purse snatching.
In most cases, robbery is a felony, and a conviction can result in significant prison time, especially if a weapon was involved (armed robbery). A person convicted of robbery could easily face a 10- to 30-year prison sentence. Generally, sentencing laws also consider robbery a crime of violence. In some states, a crime of violence conviction impacts probation or parole eligibility, enhances charges for future crimes, or carries mandatory sentences.
Robbery and theft differ in several respects, but the key difference that makes robbery the more serious offense is the potential for physical harm to a victim.
Person vs. property offense. As noted above, theft is a crime against property, whereas robbery is a crime against a person. This factor alone makes robbery more serious than theft.
Violent vs. nonviolent offense. Both theft and robbery involve taking or attempting to take money or property without permission. But theft doesn't involve violence, whereas the crime of robbery requires force or the threat of force.
Victim presence. Robbery, unlike theft, entails taking property directly from or in the presence of a person, which places the victim in the path of direct harm.
Penalties. The penalties for theft and robbery reflect the potential for physical harm and violence to a victim. Robberies generally start as felonies, and a defendant convicted of robbery will likely see prison time. Thefts, on the other hand, can result in misdemeanor penalties. Even for felony theft, a person may potentially receive probation and spend little time behind bars.
The elements of crimes and their potential punishments can vary from state to state. For more on the differences between theft and robbery, or to learn about the laws in your area, consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer.