Larceny Definition

When it comes to larceny, what is meant by the unlawful taking of another's property? It means that the taking is not lawful or legitimate. The removal or appropriation of property for a lawful purpose is not larceny. 

Larceny is what most people think of as common theft. Common theft is the taking of someone else's property without the use of force. The Model Penal Code and the laws of several states place larceny and certain other property crimes under the general category of theft crimes. However, some states retain traditional common-law distinctions in which larceny is its own crime, separate from other property crimes like embezzlement or robbery.

Popular since the 1400s, the term "larceny" comes from the Anglo-French word “laricen." It means theft of personal property.

This article contains an overview of larceny, including the elements of the offense and a discussion of state laws and penalties.

Definition of Larceny: Elements of the Crime

The following elements must be proven in order to obtain a conviction for larceny:

  1. An unlawful taking and carrying away;
  2. Of someone's personal property;
  3. Without the consent of the owner; and
  4. With the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property

Unlawful Taking

For example, when a bank repossesses a car for non-payment, there is a lawful basis for its action. The bank does not commit larceny. In contrast, the taking is unlawful when a stranger breaks into a car in the restaurant parking lot and drives off with it.

Some states also require that the taker carry the property away for it to be considered stolen property. This "carrying away" can be slight. For immovable property, carrying away can be satisfied if the perpetrator has taken control of the property and removed its use and enjoyment from the owner.

Someone Else's Property

To commit a larceny offense, the suspect must take property belonging to someone else. If the property belongs to the person taking it, then larceny would not apply. Even when another possesses your property, you can take it back and not commit larceny. For example, your neighbor borrowed your lawnmower last summer and has not returned it. If you see the lawnmower in the driveway and take it, you have not committed larceny. In these situations, the law looks at who had a better legal claim to the property.

People who co-own property can also commit larceny if they deprive any co-owners of their right to the property. For example, three friends jointly purchase a boat. One of the friends moves away and takes the boat. They take it without the consent of the other two friends. The two boatless friends can claim that the one who took off with the boat took the property of another person. They have a claim for larceny.

Without the Owner's Consent

Even if someone intends to steal a piece of property, no larceny occurs if the owner consents to the transfer of ownership of the property. However, it may be a crime if the owner transfers the property due to another person's deceit or fraud. This kind of "larceny by trick" may or may not be addressed by other property crimes.

The Taker's Intent

The final element of larceny involves the taker's intent to permanently deprive the owner of the use and enjoyment of the property. In other words, if the person who took the property intended to give it back eventually, this would not constitute larceny.

Larceny is a specific intent crime. This means that the person taking the property must specifically intend to keep the property unjustly. Therefore, in a situation where a person reasonably believes that they own the property they are taking, they would not have the specific intent required for larceny. A taking by mistake or accident does not qualify for larceny.

One Larceny or Several?

A common question arising in larceny prosecutions is whether one larceny or several has occurred. Generally, multiple items stolen from the same owner at the same time will form one larceny, but some states allow prosecutors to charge such a situation as multiple larcenies.

Courts often look at the timing and locations of larcenies to determine whether they formed part of a single activity or several. If part of a single activity, only one larceny has occurred. However, multiple larcenies could be charged if there were multiple activities.

The determination of the number of larcenies can affect the number and severity of the larceny charges. For example, if multiple takings form one instance of larceny, the amount of the items taken could push the severity of the crime into a felony larceny offense. On the other hand, if the multiple takings each formed a single occurrence of larceny, the defendant may face multiple lesser misdemeanor counts. This determination could have a great impact on the punishment the defendant receives.

Types of Larceny

The crime of larceny can take many forms. Each state will set forth its own variations. Thus, consulting with a local criminal defense lawyer may help you understand how larceny cases proceed in your area.

  • Petit larceny, often referred to as petty theft or petty larceny, means theft of personal property with low value. Each state sets different threshold values that determine the penalties for thefts. Petit larceny commonly occurs in retail stores in the act of shoplifting. A shoplifter will often steal everyday items of relatively low value.
  • Grand larceny is sometimes used to describe theft when the value of the property is high. Each state also sets threshold values for what value of property could elevate charges to a felony. One example of grand larceny could be the theft of a motor vehicle.
  • Embezzlement is a crime that could be viewed as a kind of larceny involving theft or misappropriation of funds or property entrusted to the thief or belonging to the thief's employer.

In North Carolina, larceny of property includes receiving stolen goods and possessing stolen goods. If the value of the goods taken equals or exceeds $1,000, the offense is a Class H felony. If the value of the goods taken is under $1,000, the offense is a Class 1 misdemeanor. Certain larceny offenses in North Carolina are felonies regardless of the value. This includes larceny:

  • From the person
  • Pursuant to a burglary or breaking and entering crime
  • Of an explosive or incendiary device
  • Of a firearm
  • Of any record or paper of the North Carolina State Archives
  • Where the offender has four prior convictions in their criminal record

New York's Penal Code defines several ways that larceny can be committed. It provides that larceny occurs when a person—with intent to deprive another of property or to appropriate the same to himself or to a third person—wrongfully takes, obtains, or withholds such property from an owner in the following ways:

  • Common law larceny by trespassory taking
  • Common law larceny by trick
  • Embezzlement
  • Obtaining property by false pretenses
  • Acquiring lost property
  • False promise
  • Issuance of a bad check
  • Extortion

Some of these methods are clearly defined in the statute, while others are left to common law definitions. New York also provides for crimes where the penalty increases as the property's value increases, including:

  • Petit larceny
  • Grand larceny in the fourth degree (value over $1,000, credit or debit cards, other specific items regardless of value)
  • Grand larceny in the third degree (value over $3,000 or an ATM or its contents)
  • Grand larceny in the second degree (value over $50,000 or certain property obtained by extortion or involving the use of a public servant and their duties)
  • Aggravated grand larceny of an ATM (with prior conviction of grand larceny of third degree in the previous five years)
  • Grand larceny in the first degree (value over $1 million)

In Massachusetts, jury instructions on “larceny by false pretense" call for consideration of whether the state offered adequate proof of the following elements:

  1. The defendant makes a false statement of fact;
  2. The defendant knew or believed that the statement was false;
  3. The defendant intended that the person to whom they made the false statement would rely on it; and
  4. The person to whom the false statement was made did rely on it and consequently parted with property

An excellent example of “larceny by false pretense" occurs when a thief convinces someone to sell and transfer the title to an item of significant value on the basis of a misrepresentation. This could be a false promise to exchange something of equivalent value in the future. Or it could even be a lie about "borrowing" an item temporarily—with no intention to give back the purloined goods.

Each state legislature decides the amount that divides a grand larceny (or felony theft) from a petty larceny (or misdemeanor theft). Note that these values may change over time.

Get Legal Help With Larceny Charges Today

Any crime falling under larceny statutes could result in serious charges with serious consequences. Larceny crimes may progress from petty shoplifting incidents to the loss of substantial sums of money in white-collar crimes like embezzlement. However, prosecutors often have some leeway to negotiate outcomes when pursuing larceny cases.

Having qualified, experienced legal counsel on your side can make a difference in the outcome of your case. Consider talking with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney near you today to learn more.

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