Criminal Law

What Is Burglary?

By Jessica Gillespie, Legal Researcher and Editor
Burglary is entering a building illegally with the intent to commit a crime while inside.

States define burglary a bit differently, but the essence of the crime is entering a building without permission in order to commit a crime inside. In the past, most states defined burglary as using force to break into someone else’s home after dark. Today, though, burglary laws tend to be much broader.

Burglary is related to criminal trespass, which is generally defined as entering or remaining on someone else’s property without permission. But burglary has different elements and is much more serious.

Entering illegally. For a burglary conviction, a person must enter a building without permission. Under most burglary laws, the person need not break a lock or a window to get inside. Gaining entry by turning the knob of an unlocked door, unlatching a gate, or raising a partially open window is usually enough. Also, a would-be burglar generally doesn’t have to fully enter the building to be guilty of the offense—reaching through an open window to grab money or property, for example, can be burglary.

Type of building. Burglary statutes typically provide a broad definition of the term “building” or “structure,” including more than just residences and shops. For instance, illegally entering a warehouse, museum, school, boat, or even campsite in order to commit a crime can be considered burglary. In some states, even breaking into a motor vehicle to steal something from inside will qualify (although this act is a crime in all states, even if it doesn’t meet the definition of burglary).

Intent to commit a crime. When illegally entering a building, to be burglary, the person must intend to commit a crime while inside. (The person can be guilty of a crime like trespass without having that intent.) Under many burglary laws, the intended crime must be a felony or some form of theft. Some states’ statutes, though, say that a person who enters a building without permission and intends to commit any crime inside is guilty of burglary.

Burglary is usually a felony. Most states divide the offense into degrees of severity, depending on factors such as whether the burglar is armed with a weapon or hurts someone during the crime. An armed burglary conviction, for example, can result in a prison sentence of ten years or more and a fine in excess of $20,000. To learn more about burglary laws and punishments in your state, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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