What’s the Difference? Larceny Vs. Theft
Read enough detective novels and you’ll think you know the laws surrounding property crime, but you may be surprised by how different the distinctions can be from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Here’s how to tell the difference between larceny and theft.
If you’ve watched police procedurals on television or glanced through your town’s police blotter, one of the most common crimes you’ll note is theft. Theft, or taking property from its owner with the intent of permanently depriving its owner of that property, is the most common property crime in the United States: The FBI reports that 71.7 percent of all property crimes in 2017 were categorized as larceny-thefts.
However, you may also have noticed the overlap in terminology. The FBI calls these crimes larceny-thefts so as to include all states’ reporting structures in their statistics. In your local paper you may see these words used to describe what appear to be different crimes, or used interchangeably, or you may see one term but not the other. Is there a difference between larceny and theft? The answer: sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on the state and local statutes where you live, and the distinctions and degrees of these crimes can make a big difference when it comes to criminal charges and sentencing. Awareness of these distinctions is important for residents trying to protect their property: You may not even be aware that some types of theft can be charged as crimes, so being up on the latest laws in your state can help you see trends and learn how to better keep your property and information safe.
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1. Both theft and larceny involve taking another person’s property against their will.
Regardless of where you live, if you have taken someone else’s property without permission with no intent to return it, you’ve committed theft. Depending on how you’ve taken the property and where you live, you may also have committed larceny. Theft is not restricted to physical property: It can include intellectual property, financial swindles and tricks, identity theft, and theft of services. When the terms “larceny” and “theft” are used as distinct crimes, larceny usually refers to the theft of physical items while theft includes all variations on stealing property from another person or entity.
2. Theft is typically defined by three key factors.
To qualify as a theft, most jurisdictions require that three things be true: An individual must have:
- Taken property that belongs to someone else,
- Taken the property without the permission of the owner through the use of deception or trickery (without the owner’s knowledge or without the owner knowing there’s no plan to return it), and
- Taken the property with the intention of permanently keeping it away from the owner.
It is possible in some locations to be charged with theft if you have accepted or received property when you know the property is the result of a theft. Again, “property” can refer to more than physical property, depending on local laws.
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3. Different jurisdictions can have different definitions of larceny and theft or use the terms interchangeably.
Because larceny is a type of theft, many jurisdictions don’t distinguish between them and use the terms to refer to the same type of crime. However, some court systems are more specific: Those jurisdictions regard theft as the taking of any property—monetary, physical, intellectual, service, or identity-related—as theft, but only define larceny as the taking of physical property that can be carried or physically taken away.
4. For example, in New York, “theft” and “larceny” can be used interchangeably, but in Kansas, theft is an umbrella term.
Part of the reason it’s so difficult to distinguish between theft and larceny is that these definitions vary considerably based on where the crime is committed. New York views theft and larceny as the same crime and uses the terms to mean the same thing. On the other hand, Kansas uses a very similar definition of theft as New York, but specifies that larceny is specifically the taking of physical property, while theft includes theft by deception, embezzlement, extortion, and the receipt of stolen property. So in Kansas, larceny is just one of a number of crimes classified as theft. Similar distinctions have been made in state legislatures all over the country, so if you need specific information, you’ll need to check the state statutes in the location where the crime was committed.
5. Both theft and larceny crimes can be prosecuted based on the offense’s classification, whether it’s “petty” or “grand.” Jurisdictions can also classify crimes by degrees.
It stands to reason that more significant crimes should result in more significant consequences, so each state has its own distinctions between the levels or degrees of theft and larceny and charge them accordingly. The terms “petty theft” or “petty larceny” (sometimes referred to as “petit,” meaning “small”) generally apply to thefts in which the value of the materials stolen is minimal, and these crimes are usually charged as misdemeanors. “Grand theft” and “grand larceny” refer to crimes in which the value of the stolen property is more significant in either value or manner of theft, and can be charged as felonies with much more significant legal consequences.
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Felony and misdemeanor charges are further ranked into different degrees, ramping up sharply as the value of the property increases. For example, in North Carolina, felony larceny is designated as third degree if the property is valued up to $5,000, second degree if the value is between $5,000 and $50,000, and first degree if the value is over $50,000. In addition, many states consider the method by which the property was taken and the type of property: Again in North Carolina, if the property has been taken directly from a person (as opposed to an empty home or a store) or if the property includes explosives, incendiary devices, or firearms, the crime immediately elevates to the level of a felony.
Again, these distinctions shift from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, so you’ll need to check state and local statutes for specifics, but this organization of crimes is commensurate with what you’ll find in most locations. Check out your own state and town’s statistics and statutes regarding larceny vs. theft to see which crimes are most prevalent in your area, and protect your home accordingly.