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Robbery Overview

Robbery is theft accomplished by violence or the threat of violence. Unlike theft or burglary, robbery typically includes the presence of a victim who faces the threat of bodily harm. A higher criminal charge happens if the robber uses a deadly weapon to commit the crime, or if the victim suffered an injury. The crime will become "armed" or "aggravated" robbery.

For example, Diane sneaks up on Jesse, demanding Jesse's money while pressing a plastic object into his back. Jesse gives up his wallet. Law enforcement authorities would charge Diane with robbery. If Diane employed a real gun or Jesse sustained injuries, they would likely charge the crime as armed robbery or aggravated robbery. In some states, it does not matter if the gun was not real — Diane could still face an armed robbery charge if she showed the fake gun or threatened Jesse with it. This article gives an overview of how states define and charge robbery and when it becomes a federal offense.

The Elements of Robbery

The laws of each state may define robbery offenses differently. But each definition will contain the same essential elements of robbery. Robbery consists of:

  • Taking with intent to steal (in some states, the crime of robbery happened regardless of whether the robber took property)
  • Taking the personal property of others
  • Taking the property against their will
  • By violence or threat of physical force against a person (some statutes need imminent threat)

The element of force sits at the core of the crime of robbery. The timing of the force matters, too. For example, if a thief uses violence only when fleeing the scene, the charges would include theft and perhaps assault, but not necessarily robbery. The use or threat of force can be slight. A robbery has happened if even a small amount of violence or intimidation is enough to coerce someone to turn over the property. Police and prosecutors consider the differences between the robber and the victim (size, age, disability).

Robbery is a serious crime. But states differ on when a theft is robbery versus pickpocketing. Some states, such as New York, require the use of force, or threat of force, to increase the danger to the victim. In other states, like Maine, juries can conclude simply that the amount of force needed and used to grab the wallet could meet the use of force element of the crime.

State Robbery Laws and Degrees of Severity

Generally, American criminal law inherited its definitions of robbery from the common law of the English legal system. States have now codified robbery statutes in their penal codes, and legislatures have defined the crime differently. States commonly separate robbery into different degrees based on the severity of the crime.

  • Some states upgrade second-degree robbery to first-degree robbery if the robber uses a dangerous weapon or attempts to inflict serious bodily injury.
  • Some states call this latter type of robbery aggravated robbery.

Federal Robbery Charges

Although state authorities primarily prosecute robbery, the crime sometimes falls under federal jurisdiction. Federal criminal statutes identify categories of robbery offenses that qualify for prosecution at a federal level. These include robbery of property that belongs to the United States, robberies of post offices that result in mail theft, some robberies of controlled substances or motor vehicles, and several types of bank robberies. The basic penalty for robbery is a prison sentence of up to 15 years. The federal bank robbery statute recognizes the federal interest in protecting federally insured deposits and protects credit unions and savings and loan institutions. It defines and outlines punishment for bank robberies and related theft crimes, including:

  • Bank robbery by traditional means (use of force, violence, or intimidation) to take or attempt to take from a bank (punishable by up to 20 years in prison)
  • Bank robbery by extortion
  • Burglary of a bank
  • Theft from a bank of a value less than $1,000 (punishable by up to one year in prison)
  • Theft from a bank of a value more than $1,000 (punishable by up to 10 years in prison)
  • Assault while committing any of the above crimes or the use of a dangerous weapon while committing any of the above crimes (punishable by up to 25 years in prison)
  • Receiving, storing, or fencing money or goods stolen from a bank with the knowledge that it was stolen (punishable by the same penalties as the primary offenders)
  • Killing or taking hostages while committing any of the above crimes (punishable by at least 10 years in prison and up to life imprisonment or even death, in the case of a robbery-related murder)

Federal prosecution of bank robberies has developed a rich case law history, exploring the law's nuances. Breaking into an ATM, for example, may or may not be a federal bank robbery. It depends on several circumstances, such as the presence or absence of a customer.

Helpful Links

Dealing With Charge of Robbery? Seek Legal Protection With a Criminal Defense Attorney

If you face accusations of robbery, theft, or any other misdemeanor or felony charges, it helps to have a robust advocate by your side. Talk to an experienced criminal defense lawyer who can help you with the challenges of your case. They can also help you understand the criminal offense and the consequences of a robbery conviction.

FindLaw has free legal resources to learn more about robbery or other issues related to criminal law. We also have a directory of criminal defense attorneys in every state. Check out the law offices in your area.

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