Theft and larceny: correct usage

With so much exposure to people’s dirty legal laundry and equal amounts of televised fictional dramas – Law and Order my personal favourite – I often heard the charge of larceny and never understood what it meant. So today I delved into it.

In its simplest definition, larceny is theft. But falling into the legal domain, there is greater complexity to it. says, “Theft in English law is now defined in statutory terms as the dishonest appropriation of property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it. In Scots criminal law, theft is the felonious taking or appropriation (or retention) of the property of another without his consent and in most cases, but not necessarily) with the intention to deprive him of it permanently. defines theft: A criminal act in which property belonging to another is taken without that person’s consent.

The term theft is sometimes used synonymously with larcenyTheft, however, is actually a broader term,

encompassing many forms of deceitful taking of property, including swindling, embezzlement, and false pretenses.

Some states in America categorise all these offenses under a single statutory crime of theft does a great job of explaining the differences between the terms robbery, burglary, theft and larceny, which it says, are distinguished by the means, the methods and the victims of these takings.

She says theft and larceny are the same thing and refer to taking something of value with the intention of depriving the owner, that is, no intention of giving it back.

A common example of theft and larceny is shoplifting.

Theft and larceny have a scale from grand to petty or petit. In the United States the difference between grand and petty is about 500 dollars (R7000) depending on the jurisdiction. If you steal a packet of pens from a stationery store, that’s petty theft; but if you help yourself to a car parked on the side of the road, unlawfully, that’s grand larceny.

Hand in the cookie jar
Petty theft, we’ve all done it

Unlawful entry adds to the seriousness of the crime. This constitutes burglary. TransLegal says “unlawful entry is sometimes called breaking and entering or housebreaking, but it is also an element of a burglary and when you burgle, as you would do in British English, or burglarise a premises, it means you have entered that premises to take something or to otherwise commit another crime.

When a person is the target of a theft, it’s called robbery and the seriousness is measured against the level of physical threat, or even perceived threat. What’s key here is that the threat of force has only to be felt by the victim for the charge to be robbery.

TransLegal says a mugging, when you hold somebody up on the street, in public, is a robbery. A purse snatching when you steal somebody’s purse from their body, that’s a robbery.

Interestingly, ‘A car-jacking when you steal a car with somebody in it, that’s another example of a robbery. (Note, this is not grand larceny) One of the most frequent crimes is cell phone theft, and if stolen from hour hand, pocket or handbag on your person that is a robbery.

In summary, a person who commits theft or larceny, is a thief, a burglary, a burglar. If a person perpetrates a robbery, that person is called a robber. Law is a fascinating area and if you are going to write about it accurately you need to do your research.

When my five-year-old nephew asked a man casually minding his own business walking through a park, “Are you a robber,” I thought, oh how cute. Now I think, oh dear, how embarrassing for his mother.

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