Crimes Against Property in the USA

By | September 9, 2021
Crimes against property in the USA

This article on ‘Crimes against property in the USA’ is written by Nilanjana Banerjee and discusses the various crimes against property as recognized under US law.

I. Introduction

There is a general notion that crime causes harm to individuals, but it can damage the property too such as breaking the thing, stealing away or even burning down. The term property includes both moveable as well as immovable property.

Each of these crimes has specific different elements and if those elements are satisfied, it can be said that such crime is committed against the property. These crimes can cause enormous loss, personal suffering and at times death too.

Such crimes have been classified into different types like violent theft crimes, non-violent theft crimes, larceny, extortion etc. on the basis of either difference in the method of stealing or the different types of property stolen.

II. Crimes Against Property

Crimes against property are acts that involve private property. There can be either use of threat or force or even no threat /force by the offender. Since these crimes enrich the perpetrator, they are called crimes against property. It can include crimes like a threat, robbery, burglary, arson, shoplifting, larceny, extortion, embezzlement.

At times the property is damaged and not taken away, such criminal acts are called destroyed property crimes. It can take the form of arson. While in some cases the property is taken away and called stolen property crimes. Examples are theft etc.

Arson is burning down any property or even making an attempt to set fire to it. There can be several reasons for doing so like for insurance benefits, revenge purposes, conceal other crimes.

Extortion is the use of a threat to obtain property from someone. The threats can be to harm the person, property or any other related individuals.

Burglary is the use of force, breaking in and forcibly entering the house or any commercial place for taking away the property.

Embezzlement is breaching trust and taking away the entrusted property.

Larceny can take the form of felony or misdemeanour depending on which value of the stolen property. Some of these crimes will be discussed in detail.

1. Theft

i. Criminal act

The criminal act element required for theft is stealing or taking away real or personal property. Real property is either land or something permanently attached to it, while personal property is any moveable item like jewellery, laptop, TV, clothing, money etc.

The taking away under theft is twofold. Firstly, the defendant has to gain control over the item and secondly, there has to be a movement that is the defendant has to move the item. Such movement is called asportation, as happens in kidnapping too.

But in theft, even the slightest movement is sufficient to qualify as theft. There is no certain minimum distance (as was said in Britt v. Commonwealth).

There are several ways in which the act of stealing can be carried out. One of such ways is physically taking away the item. It is called larceny-theft.

Another way is deceiving the victim and transferring the property (as happens in the case of real property). It is called larceny by trick. Another way is to convert the property to the defendant’s ownership or use. It occurs when the defendant gains possession of any property from any family, friends or employer. This is called embezzlement. (Commonwealth v. Mills)[1]

ii. Criminal intent

The criminal intent element needed for theft is either specific intent or general intent depending upon the jurisdiction. The Model Penal Code lays down ‘purposeful intent’ for theft.

In the case of Itin v. Ungar, the court has said that the offender must intend to take away the property and keep the stolen property. This can create a potential affirmative defence that the offender was merely borrowing the item and intended to return it back. But the intent to keep the property does not apply to embezzlement. Therefore replacement of property is no defence.

iii. Harm element

The crime of theft always includes the element of harm. It can be temporary or permanent loss of any property, no matter how slight it is. In the case of People v. Curtin[2], the court said that if the offender becomes the owner of the stolen property, the crime is false pretence theft. While, if the defendant is merely in possession, the crime is larceny by trick.

iv. Grading of theft

The grading of theft primarily depends on the value of the stolen property. If the value of the stolen property exceeds $500 or is a firearm, automobile, aeroplane, then it is a felony of the third degree.[3] All other thefts are graded as misdemeanours.[4] Petty thefts of theft or second-third degree are a misdemeanour, while theft of first degree is a felony or felony misdemeanour (depending on the value of the stolen item).[5]

v. Defences available

Every crime of theft requires attendant circumstances that the stolen property is the property of another. Thus mistake as to ownership of property can act as an affirmative defence to theft. There are several other defences mentioned hereinafter.

  1. Failure to prove specific intent i.e. intent to deprive permanently. It gets proved that the defendant was only borrowing the property ( not applicable in embezzlement).
  2. Mistake of fact as to ownership i.e. defendant believed the property to be his or her own (failure to prove attendant circumstance).
  3. Failure to prove the relationship of trust or confidence between victim and offender (embezzlement only).
  4. Failure to prove victim’s trust in the false representation made by the offender (in larceny by trick only).

2. Extortion

i. Criminal act

The criminal act required for extortion is theft accompanied by a threat to cause harm. The threat can be causing harm to the victim, accuse anyone of committing a crime, reveal such a secret that can cause a loss to the victim (bring hatred, ridicule), withhold any official action benefitting victim.[6] Extortion is categorised as a non-violent crime[7] though some of its elements are similar to that of robbery.

ii. Criminal intent

The criminal intent element for extortion is the specific intent to unlawfully deprive such a victim of the property permanently. It is similar to the intent element as required for larceny, theft, false pretences etc. Some jurisdictions merely require general intent for extortion.[8]

iii. Harm element

The offender must have obtained the property of the victim for a completed crime of extortion. If the victim merely threatens but does not obtain the property, then the offender can be charged with an attempt to extortion. The harm caused is loss of property and the fear induced by threat.

iv. Grading

Extortion is graded as a felony in most of the jurisdiction.

v. Defences available

Crime of extortion requires attendant circumstances of victim’s consent i.e. victim transfers the property based on the fear induced by threat. This is a potential defence in extortion where there was no fear induced by threat,

Another defence can be that the offender had a reasonable belief that the property is taken for his compensation or restitution. The Model Penal Code allows this defence. If the prosecution fails to prove that the defendant did not actually obtain the property, that can also act as a defence.

3. ROBBERY

i. Criminal act

The criminal act required for robbery is taking away personal property by force or threat. Its elements are very similar to extortion and larceny but the criminal act element differentiates the three crimes. The Model Penal Code states that it requires force in the committing of theft.[9]

ii. Criminal intent

The defendant must have specific intent to commit the crime and deprive the victim of his or her right over the property permanently.

iii. Harm element

In general cases, the harm requirement is almost the same as larceny and extortion i.e. the property must be transferred to the defendant, but the court in the case of Williams v. State held that in some jurisdictions, the crime is complete when the defendant employs the force or threat with criminal intent.

iv. Defences available

Defences for robbery are-

  1. Failure to prove harm ( the property not transferred)
  2. Failure to prove the intent to deprive the owner of its property.
  3. Failure to prove imminent harm or threat.
  4. Failure to prove the use of sufficient force to move the thing during the robbery.

4. ARSON

It is considered to be one of the most destructive crimes in the US. Several jurisdictions categorise it as a high-level felony that can cause punishment for life. Under common law, it was considered a crime against habitat rather than against property.

i. Criminal act

The criminal act required is setting fire or burning down real or personal property[10]. Model Penal Code states the criminal act requirement as starting a fire or causing an explosion.[11]

ii. Criminal intent

The criminal intent for arson is general intent or knowingly commits the criminal act of burning. The criminal intent as per Model Penal Code, the criminal intent is, “with the purpose of destroying a building or occupied structure of another.”[12]

iii. Harm element

The harm element as needed for arson is burning, charring or damaging the property as specified. Damage caused can be even slightest. In the case of Ursulita v. State, the court has said that smoke damage even without burning will be deemed sufficient. Model Penal Code merely requires starting a fire regardless of the damage caused due to such fire.

iv. Defences available

First-degree arson focuses on arson of any dwelling, while second-degree arson is about arson on other’s property. However, some jurisdictions do not require the attendant circumstance of property belonging to someone i.e. a person can even burn down his own property. In former cases, the defence is failure to the attendant circumstance of property belonging to another. In some jurisdictions, the defence is failure to prove that the property got burned, charred.

5. Burglary

i. Criminal act

The criminal act required for burglary is breaking and entering into the area concerned. While the Model Penal Code only requires an entry.[13] As per the case of Commonwealth v. Hallums, criminal breaking is a must to enter in the area concerned. The criminal breaking shall involve force even as slight as pushing open a closed door. Thereafter, the entry can be partial or complete or even of a tool of the offender.

ii. Criminal intent

The criminal intent is general intent or knowingly commits an offence. Some jurisdictions require specific intent to commit a felony. The Model Penal Code describes the criminal intent element as ‘purpose to commit a crime therein’[14]

iii. Grading

Burglary is divided into three degrees. First-degree burglary is a felony. The first-degree felony includes the use of weapons entry during nighttime, inflicting deadly injury. Second and third-degree burglaries are still felonies but less serious. Model Penal Code grades burglary as a felony of the third degree.[15]

iv. Defences available

  1. Failure to prove attendant circumstance i.e. the event occurred during daytime, in a property that is not dwelled upon.
  2. Failure to prove the specific intent required.
  3. Failure to prove the criminal act i.e. failure to prove that defendant broke into the lawful place of the victim.

III. Conclusion

Thus, under US Criminal Law, there are several categories of crimes against property such as theft, arson, burglary, robbery, embezzlement, extortion etc. Each one of them has a criminal act element, criminal intent element and defences available based on their seriousness.


References

[1] 400 Mass. 626 (Mass. 1987)

[2] 22 Cal.App.4th 528

[3] Model Penal Code, s. 223.1 (2), 1962.

[4] Model Penal Code, s. 223,1 (2), 1962.

[5] Cal. Penal Code, s. 489, 2011.

[6] Model Penal Code, s.223.4 , 1962.

[7] Model Penal Code, s. 223.4, 1962.

[8] Ariz. Rev. Stat. S.13-1804.

[9] Model Penal Code, s.222.1(1), 1962.

[10] Cal. Penal Code, s.451, (2011).

[11] Model Penal Code, s.220.1 (1), (1962).

[12] Model Penal Code, s.220.1 (1), (1962).

[13] Model Penal Code, s.221.1 (1962).

[14] Model Penal Code, s.221.1 (1) , (1962).

[15] Model Penal Code, s.222.1 (2), (1962).


  1. Law Library: Notes and Study Material for LLB, LLM, Judiciary and Entrance Exams
  2. Legal Bites Academy – Ultimate Test Prep Destination

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