The taking of something of value, whether money or property, from someone through the use or threat of physical force is considered to be robbery. Robbery differs from the crime of burglary in that the victim must have suffered physical harm, or the fear of being harmed. While most people think robbery is a crime committed by bank robbers and guys holding up convenience stores, the truth is that, under most states’ laws, an eighth grader who threatens to beat up students who refuse to give him their lunch money is committing robbery. To explore this concept, consider the following robbery definition.

Definition of Robbery


  1. The felony crime of taking something of value from another person through force or threat of violence.


1150-1200   Middle English Old French  robberie

Common Law Robbery

U.S. laws concerning robbery date back to English common law. While each state has its own specifics regarding the crime and its penalties, the actual definition is basically the same. Robbery is most often prosecuted at the state level, unless it occurs on federal property, such as in a federal bank or credit union, or in a post office. In these cases, robbery is prosecuted as a federal crime. Robbery may also be prosecuted as a federal crime if the goods stolen are transported to another state or country.

Elements of Robbery

While each state has different criteria for the charges of robbery, some of the elements are the same regardless of where the crime occurs. These include (1) the taking and carrying away of money or property (2) with the intent to steal it, (3) from the victim’s presence, (4) through the use of force or threat of violence.

The elements of robbery are very similar to those of larceny (theft) except for the last two elements listed. If the money or property is stolen from someplace other than in the victim’s presence, or there is no use or threat of force or violence, the perpetrator is likely to be charged with simple larceny.

The term by threat of violence means that the victim must have reasonable fear that harm is going to come to them during the theft. On occasion, threats made to third parties may be used as an element to prove a robbery took place.

Example of Robbery vs. Larceny

John approaches Mary from behind and tells her to hand over her purse. During the incident, Mary feels a hard object being pressed into her back. Scared that John has gun and will shoot her if she does not comply with his demands, Mary hands him her purse. Police quickly arrest John who claims that he was only pressing his fingers into her back, but because Mary believed he had a gun, and was truly scared of being harmed, the crime is considered robbery.

If an actual gun had been used, the charge could be escalated to a different crime. If John had not touched Mary, or led her to believe that he had a weapon, a lesser charge may be appropriate. On the other hand, if John had stolen Mary’s purse while she was inside the store, the charge would be considered larceny.

Degrees of Robbery

Robbery cases may consist of many different acts ranging from using verbal threats to use of weapons. Because so many factors may be involved, robbery is often divided into different degrees, each of which holds a different level of seriousness. In most jurisdictions, first degree is the most severe, the seriousness decreasing for second and third degree robbery.

  • First Degree Robbery – occurs when a perpetrator injures either the victim or another person during the crime. Robbery in which the offender possesses a deadly weapon, or threatens the victim with a weapon is also considered first degree.
  • Second Degree Robbery – occurs when a perpetrator commits the act an accomplice present, or if the perpetrator causes injury to a person other than the victim. In some jurisdictions, theft of a car is automatically considered second-degree robbery.
  • Third Degree Robbery – occurs when a perpetrator uses physical force or a weapon to steal someone else’s money or property.

There is some obvious overlap in the elements of the different degrees of robbery. This is to allow law enforcement and the court system to take into account specific details of each robbery case, as well as the perpetrator’s criminal history.

Armed Robbery and Aggravated Robbery

Armed robbery is a more severe form of robbery that occurs when a perpetrator uses violence during the crime while having a dangerous weapon in his possession. In some jurisdictions, armed robbery is known as “aggravated robbery,” but the two crimes are the same. A dangerous weapon is defined as one that can cause serious physical injury or death. This does not mean that the weapon must be a firearm or a knife, it can be any item with the potential to cause serious injury or death, such as a baseball bat, tire iron, or vehicle.

Even if the perpetrator does not use the item during the robbery, simply having it on his person can result in a charge of armed or aggravated robbery. Armed robbery cases often result in a more severe punishment and the defendant may be subject to additional charges such as possession of a firearm or possession of a deadly weapon.

Robbery as a Felony

In most states, robbery is considered a felony regardless of the circumstances surrounding the crime. The class of felony however, may vary depending on factors such as whether or not a deadly weapon was used. For example, in New York, first-degree robbery is considered a Class B felony. Class B felonies automatically carry a maximum prison sentence of 25 years. In California however, first-degree robbery is classified by two sets of guidelines, which include such factors as whether or not the crime was committed in someone’s home. Either way, the crime carries a penalty of 3-9 years in the state prison.

Penalties for Robbery

Just as the exact definition of robbery varies from state to state, so do the punishments handed down by the legal system when a person is charged with the crime. Each state’s criminal code specifies minimum and maximum sentences to be imposed. In California, robbery charges carry prison sentences of two, three, or five years and the judge can determine which is handed down to the defendant. In New York, however, the minimum is one year and the maximum is 15 years, so the judge can choose any length of time within these bounds. In any case, an armed robbery sentence is often more severe. The court can also impose fines, order restitution, or demand the defendant perform community service. During the sentencing phase of a trial, the trial court judge considers such factors as:

  • The defendant’s previous criminal history
  • Value of the property stolen
  • Level of violence or threats used during the commission of the crime
  • Type of weapon, if any, was used during the crime
  • Whether the defendant returned the stolen property or tried to make amends with the victim

Bank Robbery

Bank robbery is defined as stealing money or other assets from a bank while the bank’s employees, and usually customers and bystanders, are subject to force or violence, or are threatened with violence. This is a critical element in differentiating bank robbery from bank burglary. Burglary entails stealing money or other assets from a bank when it is closed, or when there are no people subject to the perpetrator’s control or violence. Although television and movies have romanticized bank robberies over the decades, the truth is, it is a relatively unsuccessful crime. According to the FBI, bank robbers netted only $7,500 on average in 2010.

Robbery Statistics

Though the general public commonly think of robbery as a crime committed in banks, convenience stores, and gas stations, the reality is surprising. Robbery takes place on the street more often than other locations. Other interesting facts about robbery include:

  • Only 2.1% of robberies take place at banks, and fewer than 10% take place at convenience stores or gas stations.
  • An estimated 447,000 robberies are reported in the U.S. each year, which is about one per minute.
  • The Southern States have the highest percentage of robberies annually at 38.3% of the total reported.
  • August and October see the highest number of robberies.
  • While large cities see an average of 173 robberies per 100,000 people, small cities only see 16 to 62 per 100,000 people.
  • Over $500 million are lost each year due to robberies.
  • A firearm is used in over 40% percent of robberies, knives used in about 8.6%, and punching, kicking, and other forms of strong-arm tactics are used in nearly 40% of robberies.
  • While police departments in larger areas solve only about 20% to 25% of robberies each year, police in rural areas have a clearance rate of about 40%.
  • Over 60% of robbery perpetrators are under the age of 25, and 90% are male. The crime is committed by people of all races.
  • Most robberies occur between 8 p.m. and 3 a.m., and the number is higher during winter months due to extended hours of darkness.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Intent – A resolve to perform an act for a specific purpose; a resolution to use a particular means to a specific end.
  • Jurisdiction The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Felony – A serious crime declared by statute to be a felony; a crime for which the punishment may be imprisonment for more than one year, or death.
  • Lesser Charger– A lesser charge, or included offense, shares some elements of the main charge or greater criminal offense. For example, trespassing is a lesser included offense of burglary, aggravated sexual assault is a lesser included offense of rape, and manslaughter is a lesser included offense of murder.
  • Offense – A violation of law or rule, the committing of an illegal act.
  • Personal Property – Any item that is moveable and not fixed to real property.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
  • Perpetrator – A person who commits an illegal or criminal act.
  • Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.