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Distinguishing Between Robbery and Burglary in NJ

March 25, 2024

Explore the Critical Distinctions in the Elements, Circumstances, and Consequences of Burglary vs. Robbery Offenses in New Jersey

Robbery and Burglary Distinction in NJ Law

If you break into someone’s home, thinking it is unoccupied, but find an occupant and point a gun at them, demanding cash in their wallet and electronics in the house, is it robbery or burglary? The distinction is often unclear to most people. Knowing the difference for those charged with robbery or burglary in New Jersey is essential. The criminal consequences for each are distinct, depending on the circumstances. The crime’s timing, intent, and location may mean robbery or burglary charges and the potential prison sentence of five years, ten years, or even twenty.

Defining Robbery vs. Burglary under NJ Law

Distinguishing one crime from another starts with definitions. For a burglary conviction, a prosecutor must prove you entered a structure or remained on someone’s property without the owner or occupant’s consent, intending to commit a crime. For example, you commit burglary when you step into someone’s home, business, garage, or other building without the owner’s consent or knowledge, intending to steal, vandalize, trespass, or commit another crime. The crux of the crime is the illegal entry into the structure intending to do unlawful acts. It does not matter whether you acted illegally once inside. The intent to commit a crime at the time of the illegal entry is burglary. 

On the other hand, robbery occurs when you steal another person’s property by direct force or threats to the property owner. You face a robbery conviction if the prosecutor proves you stole something using a gun, knife, or other weapon, or under threat of physical harm, regardless of when you formed the intent to commit the theft. Proof of theft requires a showing that you intended to keep what you forcefully took from the victim.

Relevance of Threat or Use of Force

It’s helpful to look at an example. You may pass someone on the street while walking home when you glance at their gold watch. Without even a thought, you spin around and grab the person by the neck, placing a chokehold on them until they give you the watch. Though you did not intend to steal anything seconds before the act, you still may face robbery charges because you obtained a gold watch by physically forcing the person to give it to you. The physical force resulting in the theft is what makes it robbery.

The essential difference between burglary and robbery is the one-on-one violence or threat to commit theft. There is no robbery if you do not steal something from someone with a weapon, your physical body, or a threat of harm; you did not commit robbery. Robbery requires violence or intimidation. Moreover, grabbing someone’s purse while running by is robbery, even when the person did not experience the immediate threat because it was over before they were aware of what was happening. A burglary may occur without anyone around, like an empty home, so no one experiences assault or fear when the crime occurs. Unlike robberies that typically involve facing your victim while exercising force or threat of force over them, burglaries do not require a confrontation with the property owner. A burglary may occur without fear or physical injury.

Relevance of Where the Crime Occurs

Not only when you form the intent to commit a crime is critical to defining burglary, but also where the crime occurs. A burglary must include the unlawful entry into a structure, which could be any enclosure, including cars and trucks. For example, you could pull car handles down a row of parked cars in a residential neighborhood late at night until you found an unlocked one. Looking around to ensure no one sees you, you enter the car and look through the glove box and center console. The police are most likely charging you with burglary when they find you in the vehicle rummaging through it.

While burglaries occur when you enter or remain inside a structure, robberies typically occur outside someone’s home or business (although inside, happens too), in public spaces, such as the street, a vehicle on the public roadways, or at a bank. Various forms of robbery, like armed robbery, mugging, and carjacking, often occur in public spaces or outside structures.

Which is Worse, Robbery or Burglary in New Jersey?

The penalties for each crime vary depending on several factors. By law, robbery is either a first or second degree crime. It’s more severe than burglary in the potential consequences and actions involved. You face more serious sentences when you hurt someone or use a weapon, among other factors. So, it makes a difference whether you mug someone by shoving them against a building wall and grabbing their bag, or whether you point a gun at them for the bag. Similarly, grabbing someone’s purse from their arm as you run by may be less of an offense than knocking someone unconscious to steal their wallet. However, the purse owner’s broken arm or shoulder may worsen the penalties.

In any standard scenario, you may face second degree robbery, which means you could spend five to ten years in prison and pay up to $150,000.00 in fines. When you use a weapon, you heighten the risk of death or injury during the commission of a crime. Thus, a robbery at gunpoint is a first degree crime, while a mugging that left someone physically unharmed may only be a second degree crime. The difference between a first degree conviction and a second degree conviction is at least five or more years in prison. First degree crimes are punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison, compared to second degree sentences of 5 to 10 years. On top of that, you must serve 85% of your sentence under the No Early Release Act.

Likewise, burglary depends on the physical or property harm to the victims. So, when you enter an empty home or one with occupants, it may mean the difference between a second or third degree charge, given the risk of harm to the inhabitants. It also matters whether you threaten the home dwellers with a weapon, tie them up, confine them to a closet, or other forms of assault. With a weapon in your possession, you will be charged with second degree burglary, which carries a term of imprisonment of 5 to 10 years and $150,000 maximally. A third degree burglary conviction results in a possible three-to-five-year sentence with up to $15,000.00 in fines.

Presumptions for Burglary vs. Robbery Sentences

Something else to consider is the presumption of incarceration. A judge could decide you get probation instead of imprisonment for a third degree criminal conviction. However, a presumption that you will be incarcerated comes with first and second degree convictions. You must fight the uphill battle of rebutting that presumption to avoid a prison sentence.

Let Proetta, Oliver, & Fay Assist with Your Burglary or Robbery Charge in Burlington County, NJ

To rebut the presumption of incarceration or defend yourself against charges for robbery or burglary, you are in a better position with professional legal help. Your guilt or innocence in a case involving burglary or robbery charges may depend on the skills of an experienced criminal defense lawyer convincing a jury that the prosecution is pinning a crime on you without sufficient evidence, or that the criminal charges are incorrect. Our criminal defense attorneys at Proetta, Oliver, & Fay who regularly handle burglary and robbery cases can use all of their knowledge and experience to handle your case. We can educate you about the differences between robbery and burglary and determine whether the state has grounds for either charge.

Our criminal defense lawyers understand what a prosecutor must prove to convict you of either or both crimes under New Jersey law. We can also interpret the facts and evidence regarding what happened to see which possible defenses to the crimes exist. If you have been arrested for robbery or burglary in Mount Laurel, Pemberton, Lumberton, Mount Holly, Florence, Burlington City, or another community in Burlington County area, consult a criminal defense lawyer on our team today to learn more about your charges and how we can help. Call 609-850-8284 or fill out our form to request a free consultation.

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