Robbery vs. Burglary


Robbery and burglary are not the same thing

If you saw Marvel’s Ant-Man, you might recall that Paul Rudd explained the difference between robbery and burglary a few times.

It’s a point well taken. Although the terms robbery and burglary are often confused as having the same meaning, under California law (and apparently in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), they are two different crimes.



As defined by California Penal Code section 211, robbery is the “felonious taking of personal property in the possession of another, from his person or immediate presence, and against his will, accomplished by means of force or fear.”

To simplify, robbery is any theft by fear or force. Purse snatching and mugging are common examples of robbery. A purse-snatcher or mugger takes someone’s property from their person (not from their garage or storage locker), by force (grabbing the property) or fear (threatening the victim with a gun).

The definition of robbery is important because it helps determine when a robbery has or has not occurred. For example, swiping a laptop off of a table when someone’s back is turned is not robbery because the property was not taken by force or fear. Similarly, stealing something from an unoccupied car or home is not robbery because the property is not being taken directly from someone’s person or immediate presence.

Penalties and defenses against a charge of robbery

In California, robbery is either a first-degree or second-degree felony. A robbery is considered robbery of the first degree if it is:

  • Robbery of any driver or passenger on a bus, taxi, streetcar, subway, cable car, etc.
  • Robbery that takes place in an inhabited structure
  • Robbery of any person who has just used an ATM and is still in the vicinity of the ATM

First-degree robbery carries a prison sentence of three to nine years. Second-degree robbery is punishable by two to five years in prison. Several legal defenses exist. If the accused did not use force or intimidation to take the property, or is misidentified as the robber, or honestly believed the property belonged to them, these assertions may be used as the foundation of a defense.


California Penal Code section 459 defines “burglary” as entering a room, structure, or locked vehicle with the intent to commit theft or any felony once inside. Some important points:

  • Entering nearly any structure or vehicle to commit what would otherwise be a misdemeanor theft still constitutes a felony burglary.
  • It is a misconception that burglary requires forced entry. Walking into someone’s open garage with the intent to take their bicycle is still a burglary.
  • Burglary does not require the taking of property or even the intent to take property. If someone enters an office intending to beat up their ex-boss, a burglary has still occurred even if they do not steal anything from the office, because they entered the building with the intent to commit a felony assault.
  • The theft or felony does not have to be completed, only intended. For example, if someone enters their neighbor’s garage planning to steal a bicycle but is interrupted by the police, a burglary has still occurred.
  • “Entering” does not require the whole body. Putting an arm through a car window to unlock the door constitutes “entering” under the law.

Penalties for burglary

  • Burglary of a residence or hotel room is a first-degree felony in California and typically carries a sentence of up to six years in prison.
  • Burglary of a non-residential premise like a store or business may be charged as a second-degree felony or a misdemeanor at the prosecutor’s discretion.

Common defenses against prosecution for burglary

The following are some common defenses to a charge of burglary:

  • The accused was there when others committed the burglary but was not involved
  • The accused did not form the intent to commit a felony or theft until after they entered the building or room
  • The accused believed the owner had given them permission to take the property
  • The items the accused took actually belonged to them