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.
Robbery differs from theft primarily in that it involves force or intimidation to take property from another person. It is the use of force that makes robbery, in most cases, the more serious crime.
"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 are a person:
Victim need not be present. Someone can commit theft even by taking unattended property. A couple examples are taking cash left on a restaurant table and stealing a parked car.
Other forms of theft. While most people associate theft with taking property, the crime can also involve the stealing of services. For instance, depending on the relevant law, theft can occur where someone doesn't pay for but uses:
Importantly, many states—as well as the federal government—have passed laws specifically criminalizing identity theft.
Like theft, robbery involves taking money or property without permission. However, the crime of robbery also involves force or the threat of force. The typical elements of robbery are someone taking money or property:
Victim must be present. Robbery, unlike theft, entails taking property directly from a person. For instance, suppose two men armed with guns enter a bank, demand money from a teller, and flee with the cash. Because they had intent to steal, used the threat of force, and took money directly from a person, the two men have committed robbery.
In many states theft (or larceny) can be either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the value of the stolen property. For example, in Nevada, theft is a misdemeanor if the property is valued at less than $650 and a felony if the value is $650 or more. (Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 205.0835 (2016).)
Theft convictions carry a range of potential punishments, and the range varies depending on the state. For instance, in Nevada, a felony theft conviction can result in up to ten years in prison and a fine of as much as $10,000. A misdemeanor conviction in that state carries the possibility of six months' jail time and a fine of up to $1,000. (Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. § § 193.130, 193.150, 205.0835 (2016).)
Because robbery involves force, it is often considered a more serious crime than theft. In most cases, robbery is a felony, and a conviction can result in significant prison time, especially if a weapon was involved. For example, Georgia's robbery statute provides that the crime is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. However, an armed robbery conviction in that state can lead to a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, life imprisonment, or even capital punishment. (Ga. Code Ann. § § 16-8-40, 16-8-41 (2016).)
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.