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Further Readings

The unauthorized taking and removal of the PERSONAL PROPERTY of another by an individual who intends to permanently deprive the owner of it; a crime against the right of possession.

Larceny generally refers to nonviolent theft. It is a common-law term developed by the royal courts of England in the seventeenth century. In the United States, most jurisdictions have eliminated the crime of LARCENY from statutory codes, in favor of a general theft statute.

The crime of larceny was developed to punish the taking of property in nonviolent face-to-face encounters, and to set it apart from ROBBERY. Robbery involved some measure of violence in connection with theft, and the courts did not feel that a nonviolent theft should warrant the same punishment. Larceny was nevertheless punished severely. A person convicted of larceny could receive the death penalty or be sentenced to many years in prison.

The English courts were careful not to encroach on the lawmaking rights of the British Parliament, so they kept the crime of larceny limited and well-defined. A defendant could be convicted of larceny only if he or she had some physical interaction with the victim; the victim relinquished property that was in the victim's possession at the time of the taking; the defendant was not in lawful possession of the stolen goods at the time of the taking; and the defendant actually carried the property away at the time of the interaction.

Over time the English courts recognized the need to expand the concept of larceny. In the absence of legislative action, they created new offenses based on the manner in which the theft was accomplished. EMBEZZLEMENT was created in the eighteenth century to punish the misappropriation of property after lawful possession. This charge would apply, for example, if a store clerk accepted a customer's money in a legal sale, and then took that money for his or her own use. Embezzlement was punished more severely than larceny because it involved a breach of trust.

Larceny by trick was created to punish the taking of property with the owner's consent when that consent was obtained by FRAUD or deceit. Before the courts created the offense of larceny by trick, defendants who had swindled their victims were able to argue that they had not committed larceny because the victims had willfully given them property.

Shortly after the courts created larceny by trick, they created the crime of obtaining property by FALSE PRETENSES. Before, a defendant who induced a person to part with the title to property could escape prosecution because the victim transferred not actual possession of the property but only title to the property. This commercial form of taking was made illegal under the law of false pretenses.

The English courts also began to make distinctions based on the value of the stolen property. Grand larceny was any larceny of property worth more than a certain amount of money. Any larceny of property worth less than that amount was called petit larceny and was punished less severely.

In time the issue of nonviolent theft became too complex for solution through case law, and the British Parliament began to enact statutes that more clearly defined it.

The law of larceny and related offenses was adopted in the United States and remained in effect throughout the country's early history. Then, in the twentieth century, many legislatures abolished it in favor of a broad theft statute. In North Dakota, for example, the crime of theft now includes "larceny, stealing, purloining, embezzlement, obtaining money or property by false pretenses, EXTORTION, blackmail, fraudulent conversion, RECEIVING STOLEN PROPERTY, misappropriation of public funds, swindling, and the like" (N.D. Cent. Code § 12.1-23-01 [1995]).

The sweeping theft statutes are favored by prosecutors because they make it less likely that a defendant can escape punishment by arguing that one of the discrete elements in a larceny, embezzlement, or related theft was not proved. Under larceny statutes persons who commit theft can escape punishment if the prosecutor does not choose the correct charge. Under broad theft statutes, prosecutors need only be concerned with the intent to steal and the value of the property involved.

In states that have incorporated larceny into a broad theft statute, the punishment for a theft

is based largely on the value of the stolen property. In Iowa, for example, theft of property exceeding $10,000 in value, theft directly from another's person, and theft of property in and around certain abandoned buildings is theft in the first degree, a class C felony. A class C felony is punishable by a prison term of up to ten years and a fine of at least $500 but no more than $10,000. Theft of property not exceeding $100 in value is theft in the fifth degree, a simple misdemeanor, which may be punished with a fine of up to $100 and an order to perform some community service specified by the judge (Iowa Code Ann. §§ 714.2, 902.9, 903.1).

The broad theft statutes do not cover all possible theft offenses. States that have a theft statute also maintain statutes prohibiting such acts as the unauthorized use of an automobile, forgery, fraud, deceptive business practices, receiving stolen property, extortion, theft of services, and theft of property that was lost, mislaid, or delivered by mistake.

Massachusetts is one state that has retained its larceny statutes. The general larceny statute in Massachusetts combines the crime of embezzlement with larceny. Under this statute anyone who

steals, or with intent to defraud obtains by a false pretence, or whoever unlawfully, and with intent to steal or embezzle, converts, or secretes with intent to convert, the property of another … whether such property is or is not in his possession at the time of such conversion or secreting, shall be guilty of larceny. … (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 266, § 30(1)).

Massachusetts also has several other larceny statutes, some of which identify a certain act as larceny. For example, the crime of false pretenses relating to contracts, banking transactions, or credit is specifically defined as larceny (§ 33). This statute is necessary because the general larceny statute does not cover such theft.

Larceny and theft are distinct from BURGLARY, which is committed when a person trespasses into a dwelling or other building with the intent to commit a crime. Burglary does not necessarily consist of the taking of property, although the intent to steal can upgrade a criminal charge from trespassing to burglary.

Larceny is also different from shoplifting, which involves the theft of property from a place of business. Most states have eliminated the crime of shoplifting along with larceny, embezzlement, false pretenses, and similar offenses, in creating one broad theft statute.

In all states larceny and theft are distinct from robbery. Robbery involves the threat of force or the actual use of force in connection with a theft. The line between robbery, and larceny or theft is unsteady. If a perpetrator plies the victim with alcohol or drugs, most courts consider this a form of force that boosts the crime from larceny or theft to robbery. If a perpetrator simply moves a person who is unconscious through no fault of the perpetrator, the movement may not constitute the kind of force that gives rise to robbery. Most courts refuse to convict a defendant of robbery if the victim was unaware of any use of force, but the defendant may be charged with larceny or theft.

Larceny and theft generally are a matter of state law. Congress maintains a few federal laws regarding thefts that have federal implications. These statutes include theft at lending, credit, and insurance institutions; theft of interstate shipments of goods; theft on waterways and oceans; and theft by court officers.

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