Criminal Law

The Crime of Robbery

By Micah Schwartzbach, Attorney
Robbery is related to—but much more serious than—simple theft.

Updated March 4, 2016

Robbery is a well-known, oft-misunderstood theft crime. It differs from offenses like larceny and burglary in that it involves the taking of property from another person through some kind of force or intimidation.

Each jurisdiction gets to define its criminal offenses, so the elements of robbery might vary somewhat from state to state. But, in general, to commit robbery is to:

  • take money or property
  • from another person
  • against that person’s will
  • through violence, force, intimidation, or threats.

Some courts have established that, in order to be guilty of robbery, the robber doesn’t need to actually take the money or property. So, for example, a defendant who tried to take money from someone through violence could be guilty of robbery even if the victim had no cash. (See, for example, Varnado v. State, 67 So. 3d 835 (Miss. Ct. App. 2011).)

A Serious Crime

To get an idea of how a state might define robbery, take a look at the following section of a Georgia statute:

(a) A person commits the offense of robbery when, with intent to commit theft, he takes property of another from the person or the immediate presence of another:

(1) By use of force;

(2) By intimidation, by the use of threat or coercion, or by placing such person in fear of immediate serious bodily injury to himself or to another; or

(3) By sudden snatching.

(Ga. Code Ann. § 16-8-40.)

Robbery is usually a felony, meaning that the punishment for it can be stiff. In Mississippi, for instance, the offense carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. (Miss. Code. Ann. § 97-3-75.)

Degrees of Robbery

Many states distinguish between grades or degrees of robbery, the punishment varying between those grades or degrees. The circumstances by which the defendant commits the robbery determine the kind of robbery that’s taken place.

A simple robbery—again, a theft of property through violence, force, intimidation, or threats—often rises to what might go by “aggravated” or “first degree” robbery when some specified factor is present. Examples of such factors include causing physical injury and brandishing a dangerous weapon. (Robbing someone with a weapon is sometimes classified as “armed robbery.”) The dangerousness of the weapon involved in a robbery—compare a knife with a firearm—can further elevate the offense.

Robbery and Sequencing

Robbery is such a serious crime that seemingly minor distinctions in circumstances can make big differences. One issue that can be critical in a robbery prosecution is the point at which the defendant used force or violence.

Suppose Bubs meanders through a large retail store, casually grabbing items here and there and shoving them into his pockets. Frank, a security officer employed by the store, notices all. After collecting an assortment of goods, Bubs strolls past the registers without paying and heads toward the exit. Frank confronts Bubs just outside the store; he identifies himself, explains that he saw Bubs take the goods, and places his hand on Bubs’s shoulder. Bubs rears back and takes a swing at Frank. The pair scuffle until store employees are able to subdue Bubs. Each man is left with scrapes and bruises.

The local district attorney charges Bubs with aggravated robbery, alleging that he took store property from Frank through injury-causing force.

Bubs is guilty of theft, and some sort of assault, too—but probably not robbery. Though he took property and used force, he didn’t use force until after he had taken the property. (See State v. Plummer, 295 Kan. 156 (2012).)

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What’s the definition of and realistic punishment for robbery in my jurisdiction?
  • For a robbery conviction, does the prosecution have to establish that the defendant intended to permanently deprive the victim of the property?
  • What makes robbery a federal offense?
  • Is someone who somehow aids or assists a robbery guilty as though he or she actually carried out the robbery?

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