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Larceny Definition

Larceny is what most people think of as common theft - 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. However, there are some states that retain the traditional common-law distinctions in which larceny is its own crime, separate from other property crimes like embezzlement or robbery.

Derived from the Middle English word “larceni" and the Anglo-Norman word larcin, larceny is theft of personal property.

This article contains a detailed overview of larceny.

Definition of Larceny: Elements of the Crime

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

  • The unlawful taking and carrying away
  • Of someone's personal property
  • Without the consent of the owner and
  • With the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property.

Unlawful Taking

The first stage of a crime that comes under a larceny definition involves the unlawful taking of another's property. So, the removal or appropriation of property for a lawful purpose is not larceny, such as when a bank repossesses a car for non-payment.

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

Someone Else's Property

For larceny to apply, the property in question must belong to someone else. If it belongs to the person taking it, then larceny would not apply. This is true even if one's property was in the possession of another at the time it was taken. For example, a larceny-defined crime does not occur when someone takes back a lawnmower lent to a neighbor who failed to return it. In these situations, the only thing that matters is whether the person in control of the property had a better legal claim to the property than the person who took it.

People who co-own property can also commit larceny if they deprive any co-owners of their right to the property. So if three friends jointly purchase a computer and one of the friends moves away with the computer, but without the consent of the other friends, this could constitute theft under a larceny definition.

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 would be a crime if the owner transferred the property due to another person's deceit or fraud, although these situations are described 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 eventually give it back, this would not constitute larceny.

Larceny is a specific intent crime, which means that the person taking the property must specifically intend to commit larceny. Therefore, in a situation where a person reasonably believes that they own the property they are taking, they would not have the specific intent of required for larceny.

One Larceny or Several?

A common question that arises in larceny prosecutions is whether one larceny has occurred, or several. 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. If there were multiple activities, however, then there could be charged multiple larcenies.

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 larceny into the category of a felony. 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. The following are types of larceny:

Often referred to as petty theft, petty or petit larceny is a term used in some jurisdictions to describe the theft of property when the value of the property is low. Each state sets different threshold values for the purposes of determining penalties for thefts.

One example of petit larceny is a typical act of shoplifting, when the shoplifter steals everyday items of relatively low value.

Grand larceny is a term sometimes used to describe a 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 that involves theft or misappropriation of funds or property entrusted to the thief or belonging to the thief's employer.

New York's Penal Code defines several ways that larceny can be committed, defining the offense as:

"when, with intent to deprive another of property or to appropriate the same to himself or to a third person, he wrongfully takes, obtains or withholds such property from an owner thereof...committed in any of 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
  • extortion

Some of these methods are clearly defined in the statute, while others are left to common law definitions.

In Massachusetts, one of the many versions of larceny prohibited by statute is “larceny by false pretense," which requires proof of the following elements:

  • a false statement of fact was made;
  • the defendant knew or believed that the statement was false when they made it;
  • the defendant intended that the person to whom they made the false statement would rely on it; and
  • 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 even 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 a felony theft) ffrom a petty larceny (or misdemeanor theft). In New York, for example, the threshold is $1200, with an exception for firearms.

Get Legal Help With Your Larceny Charges Today

Any crime that falls under the larceny definition could result in serious charges with serious consequences. However, prosecutors often have some leeway to negotiate outcomes when pursuing theft charges. That's why it is important to have qualified, experienced legal counsel on your side, someone who can challenge the evidence in your case and make sure you have a knowledgeable defender looking out for your best interests. Get in touch with a criminal defense attorney near you today to learn more.

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