Crime Terms

One of the things that hinders an ordinary person’s ability to understand what goes on in our criminal justice system is that lawyers and law enforcement professionals use esoteric terms and jargon the meanings of which are frequently known only to them. One of the major purposes of this part of our web site is to punch through the jargon of the criminal justice system. Toward that end I will be doing two things here.

First, I’ll be answering questions that people send to us, or that they ask me or my staff on the street or in grand juries or courtrooms. Real, honest questions deserve real, honest answers, and that’s what you’ll get here, so if you have questions, let’s hear from you.

Secondly, I’ll be defining the terms used in the criminal justice system. Eventually, I hope to have a dictionary full of terms — words like embezzlementsubpoena, and sequestration. Next to those will be definitions written to the extent possible in the language that we all speak around the kitchen table. Some things, of course, can’t be over-simplified without losing their meaning, but I’ll do my best. Hope you enjoy it.

To get things started I’m going to pose and answer a question that will lead logically into some definitions which I’m certain many people will find interesting based on my professional experiences and the questions my staff and I have answered personally many times before. Here goes.

What’s the difference between burglary and robbery?

Answer: There is quite frequently a great deal of confusion between these terms. One of the most common mistakes that non- lawyers make when someone’s property is stolen is to confuse the crimes of burglary, theft, and robbery. “We was robbed !” is more just a sports cliché. It is a phrase people use for all sorts of crimes that are often something else.

robbery is committed when a person steals something — that is, commits a theft — from the person or the presence of another by means of force or violence or by putting the victim in fear that if he or she doesn’t give up the property, the victim will be harmed or killed. There are three different categories of robbery under Tennessee law. Simple robbery, which I have just defined; aggravated robbery, and especially aggravated robbery.

An aggravated robbery can come in one of two ways. First, if a robbery is accomplished with a deadly weapon, or displaying something that appears to be a deadly weapon, then the offense is aggravated robbery.

The third type of robbery recognized under Tennessee law isespecially aggravated robbery, accomplished by the use of a deadly weapon and the victim suffers serious bodily injury. Both factors must be present.

So, there you have it. If a robbery is accomplished without the use of a deadly weapon, it is simple robbery. If a deadly weapon is used, but no serious bodily injury is inflicted, then we have anaggravated robbery. If serious bodily injury is inflicted but a deadly weapon was not used, it’s still aggravated robbery. When a deadly weapon is used and the victim suffers serious bodily injury, the offense is especially aggravated robbery.

bodily injury is considered to be serious if it involves a substantial risk of death, protracted unconsciousness, extreme physical pain, protracted or obvious disfigurement, or a protracted loss or substantial impairment of a function, or a body member, organ, or faculty. Protracted, by the way, means extended over a long period of time. You can see by now why it is sometimes difficult to explain such matters in just a few words.

Perhaps two other terms merit discussion here: armed robberyand strong-arm robbery. Under the law that existed in Tennessee prior to 1989, Tennessee recognized and differentiated between offenses called armed robbery and simple robbery. The difference was merely that armed robbery was the term used to define a robbery accomplished by means of a weapon. Simple robbery was what we call robbery today. Sometimes the termstrong-arm robbery was used in place of simple robbery. Many people thought strong-arm robbery was a more serious offense than armed robbery, but the opposite was true.

It is not robbery if a criminal takes the property of another person without using force or threatening to use force. That sort of illegal taking is a theft. A person commits theft of property if he or she knowingly obtains or exercises control over another person’s property without that person’s consent and for the purpose of depriving the owner of that property. Thefts are classified in terms of cash stolen with the seriousness of thefts increasing at $500, $1,000, $10,000, and $60,000.

As I mentioned earlier, prior to 1989 there were several offenses listed in Tennessee law that involved one person taking property belonging to someone else, and sometimes you still hear the terms for those offense. Some of them are: embezzlementlarceny,fraudulent breach of trust, and larceny from the person. Because those terms were so similar to one another they created a nightmare of complication and confusion for officers and prosecutors — and even for judges and juries — when trying to decide which crime had been committed. Prior to 1989, Tennessee recognized several different varieties of crime simply called “theft.” The Criminal Sentencing Act of 1989 did away with all the inconsequential differences among the theft offenses by consolidating all “stealing” crimes (except robberies) into one comprehensive category called theft.

Sometimes in order to commit a theft a criminal will break into a building to do so. When he does, he commits the crime of burglary. As with robbery, there are three categories of burglary in Tennessee. Just plain burglary, sometimes called simple burglary, is committed when a person enters a building designed as a dwelling house, with the intent to commit a felony, theft, or assault. Note that a theft may be a felony or a less serious offense called a misdemeanor, depending on the value of the property or the amount of cash taken.

It is also burglary if a person enters a building legally but remains concealed inside that building for the purpose of committing a felony, theft, or assault. Likewise, one is guilty of burglary upon entering a freight or passenger car, automobile, truck, trailer, boat, or any other motor vehicle for the purpose of committing a felony, theft, or assault.

The crime of burglary is completed at the time the illegal entry, and it does not matter whether the criminal succeeds in committing the felony, theft, or assault. If he does, then those additional crimes are charged separately.

Again, as you can see, charging can get to be a complicated process. Remember, burglary is committed at the time of the break-in — and that brings me to another point. You don’t have to “break” into a building in order to be guilty of burglary. All you have to do is enter illegally with the intent to commit a felony, theft, or assault (or enter legally, as I mentioned above, but remain concealed there for the purpose of committing a felony, theft, or assault). At one time lawyers argued endlessly about whether you had to break into a door; or whether it could be burglary if a door was unlocked; or if the burglar walked through an already open door; etc. Get the picture? — very frustrating. None of that matters now. As long as the elements I’ve already discussed are present, burglary has been committed.

You might wonder what constitutes an “entry” for the purposes of establishing a burglary. Entry into a building is defined as an intrusion into the building by any part of the body, or any object in physical contact with the body, or any object controlled by a person.

Aggravated burglary is a burglary of a habitation. Remember, a “habitation” is a dwelling house or building designed as a dwelling house and the definition includes mobile homes.

There was a time in Tennessee when burglaries were classified as first, second, or third degree burglary. First degree burglaryoccurred when someone broke into a dwelling house during the day.Third degree burglary occurred when someone broke into any other building, or a motor vehicle, at any time of day or night. All of those distinctions were abolished by the 1989 Criminal Sentencing Act and now the time of day has nothing to do with seriousness or type of burglary committed.

Especially aggravated burglary occurs if, during any type of burglary, a victim suffers serious bodily injury.

If a person unlawfully enters into a building or vehicle belonging to another for a purpose or purposes other than committing a felony. theft, or assault, then the crime of burglary has not been committed. In such cases, some type of criminal trespass charge might be appropriate, but that’s a discussion we need to save for another day.

That’s about all I have time for at the moment. The purpose of this column, as I mentioned earlier, is to answer real questions asked by real people, and I hope you’ll let me know if you have such a question. If you do, I’ll try to answer here by e-mail.

Suggested topic/questions for another day: explain the five different levels of unlawful homicide – the killing of one person by another. When can — or should — a District Attorney seek the death penalty in a murder case? Etc. As you can see, there’s really no end to the worthwhile and interesting topics we can talk about here.

Thanks for visiting.