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Robbery is a form of theft that is accomplished by the use or threat of violence.
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In modern English and American law the crime of robbery is generally defined by statute. The definitions used are primarily of two kinds: those that are closely derived from the older English common law, and those that have adopted modifications of the type recommended by the American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code. The California statute is typical of the common law approach. Borrowing language almost word for word from Edward East’s text of 1803, it defines robbery as ‘‘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’’ (Cal. Penal Code Ann. (West) § 211 (1999)). Other statutes of this kind go into greater detail, while a few states, such as Virginia, leave the definition almost wholly to the common law.
Under the older definitions, robbery requires proof of larceny, the principal common law form of theft, plus two additional factors: (1) that the taking be by means of force or fear; and (2) that the theft be from the person of the victim or from his immediate presence.
Use of Force or Fear
The central requirement of robbery is that the taking be by means of either force or fear. One common type of robbery involving force is mugging, in which the robber grabs the victim around the neck from the rear and forcibly removes his wallet or other valuables. Other common kinds of force involve striking a victim with the fists, a gun, or a blunt object.
Like any other category of crime, robbery presents a number of situations in which it is difficult to determine whether or not there is in fact a robbery. In these boundary situations, if there is no robbery there is generally some other crime rather than no crime at all. If the victim’s purse is snatched, for example, it is often difficult to determine whether the force necessary for robbery has been used. If the purse is snatched quickly so that the victim offers no resistance, the common law and many American states find that there has been no robbery and that the crime is instead larceny from the person. If the victim struggles to hold on to the purse, however, so that the thief must jerk it loose, the common law and virtually all the American states find that a robbery has been committed.
Historically, these lines were drawn at a time when robbery was a capital crime and common law judges were reluctant to paint with too broad a brush, and the distinctions consequently emphasize formal logic more than the actual or potential harm. The elderly women who are often the victims of purse-snatchings tend to be badly shaken by the experience even if ‘‘force’’ is not used, but this has not as yet caused any widespread change in the distinctions made.
Picking a victim’s pocket is generally not considered robbery because there is no use of fear and because robbery requires more force than that necessary simply to remove the property. However, if the thief jostles the victim in the taking, or if the victim notices the attempt and resists, the crime is robbery.
Fear or intimidation is an alternative to the use of force. The most common situation is the holdup, in which the robber threatens to shoot if valuables are not turned over. The threat may be implied rather than stated verbally, but it generally must be to do immediate rather than future harm. The threat may concern the property holder, members of his family, or another person who is present, and must generally concern death or bodily injury of some kind rather than an injury to reputation. Other threats—to prosecute the victim, to do future harm, or to expose the victim’s sordid past if he fails to pay—may constitute blackmail or extortion but are not robbery.
Most American states do not require that the victim actually be afraid. If the victim is not frightened, it is enough that he be aware of the impending harm. Even a slight threat is enough to constitute robbery, however, if it causes the victim to part with money or valuables.
It is sometimes said that robbery is a crime that combines both larceny and assault, but this is not strictly true. Some threats that are not sufficient to constitute an assault are sufficient for the crime to be robbery.
Another definitional problem involves thefts from persons who are unconscious because of their own acts of drinking or drug-taking. If money is simply removed from the person of such a victim, the crime is not robbery because there is no force or fear. If force is used to move the victim in order to find his money or to gratuitously inflict harm, however, as is often done in skid-row drunk rolls, the definition of robbery under most statutes would appear to be met, despite the lack of awareness on the part of the victim. If the victim is either drugged or knocked unconscious by the thief in order to secure the victim’s property, it is clear that the crime is robbery.
At common law, force or fear had to precede or coincide with the theft in order for the crime to be robbery. If force or fear was used only in the escape, the crime was considered to be larceny because there was no force or fear in the taking. From the point of view of the danger involved, however, the escape creates as much risk as the taking, and the Model Penal Code (§ 222.1) and some states have dropped the requirement that force or fear must be used in the taking.
Taking from Person or Presence
The second common law requirement for robbery is that the taking be from the person or the immediate presence of the victim. Property is considered taken from the victim’s person if it is taken from his hand or clothing or from a place where it was discarded while the victim was in flight from the robber. The victim’s ‘‘presence’’ is considered to be his area of immediate control. Property is not generally found to be taken from the victim’s person or presence if it is located some distance away. Consequently, if a victim held by a gunman directs by telephone that property in a remote warehouse be delivered to the gunman’s confederate, the crime, under the traditional rule, is not robbery. Taking the real issue to be the use of force or fear, however, the Model Penal Code, the Theft Act, 1968, c. 60 (Great Britain), and a number of states have dropped the requirement that property be taken from the person or presence of the victim. This solves some problems but leaves open the question as to how close in time and place the use of force or fear must be to the taking for the crime to be robbery.
Because larceny is a component of robbery, all the problems that exist in defining larceny are also problems in defining robbery. The common law rules that prevent the taking of real property or services from being larceny, for example, may also prevent the forcible taking of these things from being robbery. Similarly, since a taking that results from an erroneous but honest claim of ownership is not a theft because there is no intent to deprive the rightful owner, such a taking with force is not a robbery in most states because there is no theft.
If the older, more technical rules concerning larceny have been replaced with a single, more comprehensive concept of theft, there may be other problems. The wrongful failure to return borrowed property, for example, was not larceny under the older law but is included in many modern definitions. This raises the question as to whether a borrower who has wrongfully refused to return property commits a robbery if he threatens to beat up the owner for trying to recover his property. Similar questions may arise when the property was initially obtained by fraud or trickery and when force is used or threatened to keep the victim from regaining the property.
Unlike burglary but like other common law thefts, robbery requires that property actually be taken by the offender. If force or fear is employed but property not taken, there may be an assault or an attempted robbery, but at common law and in most states there is no robbery. The Model Penal Code and the statutes of some states have recognized that the harm to the person is the same whether the theft is completed or not, and have defined the crime to include the incomplete theft as well as the completed one.
Many statutes provide stiffer penalties for particularly threatening robberies. Some factors that aggravate robbery in this way are use of a dangerous weapon, infliction of serious bodily harm, intent to kill, the presence of accomplices, or the choice of an especially vulnerable target such as a person on a train or bus, or an elderly person. In many of the newer criminal codes some of these same factors now serve as aggravating factors for crimes in general, as well as specific aggravating factors for robbery. This overlap sometimes raises the question as to whether the presence of an aggravating factor such as the use of a gun should result in one additional penalty or two—as aggravation under the robbery statute only, or under both the robbery statute and the general law.
Robbery is generally viewed as a crime against the person threatened. Consequently, if there is more than one victim, many states allow multiple charges to be filed and multiple sentences to be imposed.
Some crimes closely related to robbery are larceny, larceny from the person, assault, battery, kidnapping, extortion, and murder.
Larceny is the principal common law form of theft, and differs from robbery in that it involves neither the element of force or fear nor the requirement that the taking be from the person of the victim. Larceny from the person is an aggravated form of theft that does involve a taking from the person but that does not involve the use of force or fear. Originally created by an Elizabethan statute designed to deal with a cut-purse and pickpocket problem that was serious even then (An act to take away the benefit of clergy from certain offenders for felony, 8 Eliz. 1, c. 4, § 2 (1565) (repealed)), the most common forms of larceny from the person today continue to be purse-snatching, pick-pocketing, and thefts from sleeping or intoxicated persons.
Assault is a common law crime that involves putting another person in fear, and battery is an unlawful touching or hitting. These crimes thus involve force or fear, but do not involve theft.
Kidnapping for ransom involves an unlawful seizure of a victim and, in most states, a carrying away of that person for the purpose of gaining money or other valuables. Since such movement of the victim is present in almost every robbery, there is considerable potential for overlap in the two crimes. The courts have generally sought to avoid this by ruling that for a crime to be kidnapping, the movement of the victim must be greater than that necessary for robbery to be committed.
Extortion or blackmail is a statutory crime involving threats to expose a crime or other shameful deed perpetrated by the victim unless money is paid or some other act performed. In many states the crime also covers future threats of bodily harm. The crime developed largely to protect against harms not covered by the law of robbery.
If a robber intentionally shoots or seriously injures a victim and the victim dies, the robber is guilty of murder. In most states even an accidental shooting by a robber that ends in the death of the victim is also murder because of the felonymurder doctrine, which provides that killings in the course of a felony (or at least of a dangerous felony such as robbery) constitute murder.
The History of Robbery
First listed as a plea of the Crown by Henry II in the twelfth century, robbery was one of the early crimes under English law to be made punishable by the state rather than through compensation of the injured party or through private vengeance. While not well defined at this time, robbery probably required a taking by actual force from the person of the victim, and was punishable by death or mutilation. It soon became a capital felony, however, and remained so in England—at least in theory—until the great reforms of the 1830s, when the list of capital crimes was sharply reduced. The last execution in England for simple robbery took place in 1836.
Although Roman law and other ancient codes recognized a crime similar to robbery, the older Anglo-Saxon law did not always include the concept. At one point the distinction between thefts done in the open (manifest) and thefts carried out in secret was more important. Unlike modern law, which emphasizes the potential for violence in robbery, this distinction appears to have been based on the greater certainty of proof available when the thief is caught red-handed.
In the United States, robbery was from colonial days a felony punishable by death. As late as the early 1960s, ten states made some forms of robbery punishable by death. The punishment was far from theoretical, as twenty-four persons were executed for robbery offenses between 1930 and 1962. Current constitutional doctrine would prohibit the execution of an offender convicted of robbery only. However, when his accomplice kills someone in the course of their crime, a robbery offender, under at least some circumstances, can be sentenced to death on a felony murder theory, even if he did not himself intend the killing (Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. 137 (1987)).
Robbery as a separate category embodying theft by violence is contained in the codes of many countries and cultures, both ancient and modern. This method of categorization is not universal, however, and some important legal systems have done without it. Thus, although German and Soviet law have long treated robbery as a separate crime, French law does not. Theft with violence is considered an aggravated form of theft but not a separate crime.
Types of Behavior
Robbery includes a wide variety of behavior ranging from opportunistic schoolyard shakedowns to carefully planned multimillion-dollar thefts from Brink’s or the London–Glasgow train.
In the United States about half of the robberies committed are never reported to the police. Of those that are reported more than half involve some kind of weapon, most commonly the handgun. As many as a fifth of all robberies may result in some injury. Most injuries are minor, however, and serious hospitalization is infrequent. Death is even rarer, occurring less than once in every 200 reported robberies. Even so, robbery is involved in about a tenth of all homicides.
In the United States about two-fifths of all reported robberies are of commercial enterprises, and the remaining three-fifths are of individuals. About a tenth of the total are robberies of persons in their residences. In some of these situations a burglar caught in the act uses force or fear against the householder; in others, a robbery was intended from the start, and force or fear was used to gain entry.
In the United States, men are robbed more often than women, partly because of the legal distinctions that place most purse-snatches in the category of thefts from the person rather than in that of robbery. This distinction is also relevant to the argument as to whether the elderly suffer disportionately from robberies. If measured by the total population, and with purse-snatches excluded, the elderly do not appear to be particularly vulnerable. If purse-snatches are included, however, the elderly (particularly in inner cities) do appear to be a high-risk group.
Two-thirds or more of the robberies in the United States are stranger-to-stranger crimes. In robberies involving friends or acquaintances, one party often attempts to resolve an argument over money or property by force, as when a poker player uses a gun to seize disputed winnings, or an employee forcibly demands extra pay. Although these situations are generally classified in criminal statistics as robberies, the taking is often made under a claim of right that is legally sufficient to negate the robbery charge. As a consequence, there are few convictions for robbery in these circumstances.
Other robberies arise out of brief relationships such as those engendered by hitchhiking, prostitution, and drug-dealing. In these situations both parties are vulnerable to attack, often with impunity, because the victim is reluctant to make his illicit purposes known to the police. Unreported robberies tend to be less serious than reported ones; significant numbers involve robberies of teenagers by other teenagers.
Robbery is largely an urban crime, and generally increases with the size of the city. Reported rates vary enormously from country to country. In the United States they are generally eight to ten times as great as in England or Europe, and thirty or more times greater than in Japan.
Characteristics of Offenders
Most robbers are male, and in the United States approximately 60 percent are between fifteen and twenty-four years of age. Approximately 30 percent are under eighteen, and the peak years appear to be those between the ages of sixteen and nineteen. A high proportion of robbers, both as described by victims and according to arrest rates, are black. Abroad as well, minority and disadvantaged groups figure prominently in the statistics.
The majority of robbers have previously committed some other kind of crime, and many do not commit repeated robberies. The extent to which offenders progress from lesser to more serious forms of theft such as robbery is in dispute, but many do appear to follow this path. Most robbers devote little time to planning their offenses and give scant thought to the possibility of being caught. A high proportion carry out their robberies within their own neighborhood or city.
Some common kinds of robbers include first offenders, persistent thieves and hustlers, drug addicts, disorganized opportunists, violent robbers, habitual robbers, and skillful planners.
Probably the largest group is that of persons who commit a single robbery and then stop. This group includes persons who have committed other crimes but who choose not to continue with an active robbery career, as well as persons who for situational or other reasons commit robbery as a first offense.
Persistent thieves and hustlers tend to be drifters who seek to acquire money in any possible way. They are often involved in burglary, shoplifting, and other forms of theft, as well as in robbery.
Another category consists of narcotics addicts who support their habit in whole or in part through robberies. While it is clear that many addicts are not involved in robbery, those who are tend to commit the offense repeatedly.
Other offenders do not set out to commit a robbery but simply take advantage of passing opportunities. Many street robberies and many robberies committed by youths fall into this opportunist category.
Some persons who commit robberies seem more interested in violence than profit. These offenders often use far greater force than is necessary; the theft they commit sometimes seems almost incidental.
Certain robbers develop very specific habits, for example, robbing liquor stores on Tuesday or Thursday afternoons. Having mastered a technique that is at least initially successful, these robbers tend to repeat their pattern over and over again until caught.
A few robbers—the skillful planners—plan their crimes very carefully, often manifesting the qualities of a military tactician. They generally commit the most spectacular robberies, usually small in number but highly lucrative.
As might be expected, different kinds of robberies are committed by different kinds of robbers. Armed and commercial robberies tend to be committed by white older offenders. Street robberies, on the other hand, are most frequently committed by younger offenders from minority groups.
Because the crime is a forceful and direct one, robbers tend to be viewed favorably by other criminals. Even among the general public, robbers sometimes achieve folk-hero status: Robin Hood, Butch Cassidy, and the Brink’s robbers are but a few of many examples.
- American Law Institute. Model Penal Code: Proposed Official Draft. Philadelphia: ALI, 1962.
- BICKEL, BRUCE ‘‘Struggling with California’s Kidnapping to Commit Robbery Provision.’’ Hastings Law Journal 27, no. 6 (1976): 1335– 1367.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics. Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics. Washington, D.C.: USGPO, 1998.
- CONKLIN, JOHN Robbery and the Criminal Justice System. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972.
- EAST, EDWARD HYDE. Pleas of the Crown (1803), vol. 2. Reprint. London: Professional Books, 1972.
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- ‘‘A Rationale of the Law of Aggravated Theft.’’ Columbia Law Review 54 (1954): 84– 110.