Burglary is a crime defined as unlawful entry into a building or structure with the intent to commit a crime. Physically breaking and entering is not a requirement for a person to be charged with burglary. The offender only has to enter a structure, even if it is through an open door, with the intent of stealing something or causing harm to another person. To explore this concept, consider the following burglary definition.

Definition of Burglary


  1. Entry into a building or structure without permission from the owner with the intent to commit a crime.


Early 16th century: from French burglarie

Residential Burglary vs. Commercial Burglary

Burglary involving an offender entering a home or living space is considered “residential burglary.” Entering a store, shop, office building, or other structure used for business purposes with the intent to steal something, or to commit another type of felony, is considered “commercial burglary.” Many people are surprised to learn that scraping price tags off merchandise, removing products from packaging to avoid security devices, and other forms of theft that involve some effort to circumvent security or normally pricing are considered to be commercial burglary.

Elements of Burglary

Each state has specific definitions of what constitutes burglary, their statutes defining certain elements of burglary that must be in place for an individual to be charged with the crime. Such elements generally include: (1) unauthorized entry, (2) into a structure, (3) with intent to commit a crime.

Breaking and Entry

This element of burglary involves a person breaking into or entering a structure using force or without authorization from the owner. Simply creating an access does not fulfill the breaking and entry element, as the offender must physically enter the structure. Even forcibly placing one body part inside the structure can constitute burglary, as this constitutes physical entry.

Into a Structure

This element of burglary requires the offender to enter housing, buildings, or other types of structures, including garages or sheds. Most states do not include abandoned buildings under the definition of buildings and structures when considering burglary charges. Most often, entering an abandoned building is classified as trespassing.


The intent element of burglary requires the offender to have intent to commit a crime inside the structure they have entered. Such a crime may include anything from theft or fraud, to assault.

Degrees of Burglary

When all of the elements of burglary are in place, most states categorize the crime by the seriousness of the offense. There are four main degrees of burglary:

First Degree Burglary

Entering someone’s home with the intent to commit theft or violence is considered first degree burglary. This is a felony charge.

Second Degree Burglary

In many jurisdictions, second degree burglary includes the same elements as first degree burglary, with the exception that it applies to entering a commercial building or place of business. second degree burglary may also be charged when the perpetrator entered a building with the intent to commit arson or steal a firearm. This is a felony charge.

Third Degree Burglary

Entering any structure, whether residential or commercial, with the intent to commit any crime other than theft, violence, or arson, may be considered third degree burglary. Third degree burglary is a felony charge in many jurisdictions.

Fourth Degree Burglary

While some states do not use fourth degree burglary, others charge an individual with fourth degree burglary for simply breaking and entering without committing another crime, or simply having the intent to steal something from a building. Fourth degree burglary is a misdemeanor charge.

Differences Between Theft, Burglary, and Robbery

While these terms may be used interchangeably by some laypeople, there are subtle differences between them in the eyes of the law.

  • Theft – Also known as “larceny,” theft is the act of taking someone else’s property without their consent. The offender is generally required to have the intention of depriving the rightful owner of the property permanently.
  • Robbery – The act of taking something from another person using force or the threat of force.
  • Burglary – Burglary differs from theft and robbery in that it is not necessary for something to actually have been taken, only the intent to do so.

Sentencing for Burglary

When a jury or judge returns a burglary conviction, the sentencing phase begins. A number of things are considered in sentencing for burglary, including:

  • Severity of the crime
  • Value of property stolen
  • Previous criminal history
  • Whether violence was involved

Each jurisdiction has statutes outlining sentencing parameters for specific crimes, and the judge or jury can order any amount of time that falls within these constraints. For less serious burglary crimes, the penalties often result in fines, restitution, and community service. Offenses that are more serious, however, can result in jail time along with the other penalties. If violence played a part in the crime, the most severe punishment is often ordered.

Real-Life Examples of Burglary

  1. John forces Bob’s garage door open and enters with the intent of stealing Bob’s motorcycle. Upon entering the garage, John sees the motorcycle is gone, so he returns home empty handed. Even though he did not actually steal anything, John is later charged with burglary after Bob realized what he attempted to do and called the police.
  2. Jim enters Joe’s house with the intent of stealing his new television. When Jim arrives at the house he finds the garage door unlocked, enters the home, and takes the TV. When Joe comes home, he calls the police and Jim is arrested. Even though Jim did not use force to enter the home, he is charged with burglary.
  3. Helen enters a store through the front door, uses a small pair of scissors to scrape the price tag off an item, and replaces the sticker with one showing lower price. Helen then pays for the item and leaves the store. Taking this action in order to defraud the store of a portion of their profit on the item makes this a crime. Helen may be charged with burglary because she entered the store with the intent to obtain an item without paying its full price.

Burglary Statistics

The United States leads the world in the number of burglaries that take place, a burglary being committed about once every 15 seconds. Being aware of the circumstances of burglary may help homeowners protect themselves from becoming victims.

  • In over 60 percent of burglaries the offender uses force to gain access.
  • More than 30 percent of burglars enter a home through an unlocked door, window, or other access point without using force.
  • More than 33 percent of offenders enter the structure through the front door.
  • More than 25 percent of burglars cut telephone and alarm wires before entering a home.
  • The average loss per burglary is over $2,000 as of 2014.
  • In over 28 percent of residential burglaries, a household member was at home at the time of the crime.
  • In over 7 percent of burglaries, a person is injured during the crime.
  • Only about 13 percent of burglaries are solved by the police, and the percent of property recovered is even less.

Protection Against Burglary

Though burglary statistics are alarming, homeowners can take steps to protect themselves from becoming victims of burglary.

  1. Make the home harder to enter by closing and locking all doors, even when the household members are home.
  2. Ensure all windows are locked and cannot be opened more than six inches.
  3. Trim back bushes and trees that block the view of the home. This makes the front of the house more visible, which can deter criminals.
  4. Keep items of value out of sight.
  5. Lock the door between the garage and house.
  6. Keep the main garage door locked or disconnected to prevent it from being opened manually.
  7. Use solid or metal doors with a single cylinder dead-bolt lock.
  8. Keep glass doors covered by decorative grill work, or install unbreakable plastic in place of the glass.
  9. Use an auxiliary lock or a bar in the door track of sliding doors.
  10. Install adequate lighting on the exterior of the home to illuminate all exits and the garage area. Motion sensing lights help conserve energy.
  11. Install a burglar alarm.
  12. Engrave valuable items to make them easy to identify if they are recovered.
  13. When away from home, leave some lights on to make it look occupied. Homeowners can also leave a radio playing or a TV on.
  14. When away for extended periods, have neighbors pick up newspapers and keep an eye on the home.
  15. Require service repairmen to show proper identification before allowing them to enter the home.
  16. Never let a repairman or other person inside the home unless they have called in advance, or are well-known from previous service.
  17. Keep windows and curtains closed tightly at night.
  18. Keep a phone near the bed in case a burglary occurs during the night.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Defendant – a person who has been accused of a crime, or person taken to court by another person or entity in a civil suit.
  • Felony – a crime involving violence or theft that is punishable by one year in jail or more.
  • Forcibly – using force or violence to gain entry into a structure or to take something from its rightful owner.
  • Intent – resolved or determined to do something on purpose.
  • Larceny – theft of personal property with the intent of keeping it from the rightful owner.
  • Misdemeanor – a minor wrongdoing, often punishable by less than a year in jail.
  • Restitution – compensation to a person for their loss or injury that occurred during a crime.
  • Trespassing – entering a person’s property without permission.