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Robbery Overview

Robbery is theft accomplished by violence or the threat of violence. Unlike theft or burglary, the crime of robbery almost always requires the presence of a victim who is threatened with bodily harm. If a weapon is used, or the victim suffers an injury, the robbery may be charged as "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. This would be charged as a robbery. If Diane used an actual gun, or Jesse was injured, the crime likely would be elevated to armed robbery or aggravated robbery.

This article provides an overview of how states define and charge robbery, and how and why it would be charged at the federal level.

The Elements of a Robbery

The laws of each state may define robbery in somewhat different ways, but each definition will contain the same basic elements. Robbery consists of:

  • Taking with intent to steal (in some states, the crime of robbery can be charged regardless of whether the taking or theft is successful)
  • The property of others
  • Against their will
  • By violence or threat of force against a person (some statutes require the threat to be imminent)

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 attempting to flee the scene, the charges would include theft and perhaps assault, but not necessarily robbery.

The use or threat of force can be slight. If a small amount of violence or intimidation is enough to coerce someone to turn over property, then a robbery has occurred. Physical differences between the robber and the victim (size, age, disability) would be considered in the analysis.

A thief does not necessarily need to use great force to commit a robbery. A common purse snatching is a good example of how rules vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some states, such as New Jersey, require the use of force to be one that increases the danger for the victim. In other states, like Maine, juries can conclude that the force used to grab the purse could satisfy 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 different legislatures have defined the crime in slightly different ways.

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 designate this latter type of robbery as aggravated robbery.

Federal Robbery Charges

Although robbery is primarily prosecuted by state authorities, the crime sometimes falls under federal jurisdiction. Federal criminal statutes identify categories of robbery that can be prosecuted as federal crimes. These include garden-variety robberies committed in areas of federal territorial or maritime jurisdiction, robberies of property that belongs to the United States, robberies of post offices that result in the theft of mail, 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 fifteen years.

The federal bank robbery statute recognizes the federal interest in protecting deposits that are federally insured, so it also protects credit unions and savings & loan institutions. It defines and outlines punishment for bank robberies and related 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 twenty years in prison)
  • Bank robbery by extortion
  • Burglary of a bank
  • Theft from a bank of a value less not more than $1000.00 (punishable by up to one year in prison)
  • Theft from a bank of a value exceeding $1000.00 (punishable by up to ten 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 twenty-five years in prison)
  • Receiving, storing, or fencing money or goods stolen from a bank with 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 a minimum of ten 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 history of case law, exploring the nuances of the law. Breaking into an ATM, for example, may or may not be a federal bank robbery, depending on several factual circumstances.

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