What is larceny?

Larceny is typically a nonviolent theft involving the wrongful taking and carrying away of someone else’s personal property. While the actions constituting larceny are illegal in all 50 states, the name of the specific criminal charges differs between states.

Many states lump larceny into a general “theft” crime, others have a “felonious larceny” charge, and other states divide it into the misdemeanor charge of petty (sometimes spelled “petit”) larceny and the felony charge of grand larceny based on the value of the property involved. The maximum sentence for a petty/petit larceny charge is typically six months or one year in jail, while grand larceny charges typically carry a maximum sentence of one to twelve years based on the property’s value. 

Proving the Elements of Larceny

State statutes generally break larceny down into six different elements. The state must prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt to obtain a conviction. The elements are:

  1. the wrongful taking;
  2. and carrying away;
  3. of the personal property;
  4. of another person;
  5. without his or her consent;
  6. with the intent to steal it. 

The taking element requires the offender to have actual physical control of the property at some point, even if that control is only momentary. Examples include a customer at a hardware store putting a wrench into his pocket or someone grabbing an earring out of a woman’s ear. The carrying away element (often called “asportation”) requires the property to be moved from its original position. The movement does not have to be a great distance. Even the slightest movement of an inch or so is enough. 

In the above examples, the wrench is technically “carried away” just by placing it in his pocket, before he even leaves the store. Secondly, even if the earring is caught in the woman’s hair—an inch from her ear, and the accused leaves it behind, he has committed larceny

Physical Property

Larceny specifically relates to physical property that can be picked up and moved, not ideas, services, or real property. For example, it would not be larceny if someone ran out of a barbershop after getting a haircut without paying, because the haircut is a service, not property. The property must belong to someone else. Taking abandoned property or property that you jointly own with someone else is not larceny. Technically speaking, you can be convicted of larceny for stealing your own property if someone else has lawful possession of it, such as if you broke into a dry cleaners to retrieve your suit.

Criminal Intent

Larceny is a specific intent crime, meaning that it requires the accused to have the criminal intent to steal or deprive the owner of the property for a lengthy period of time. Generally, this intent must exist at the time of the taking, though in certain situations, it can arise later. For example, if someone took a car intending to take it for a joyride, and then decided to steal it while driving it, that could be larceny. However, if the accused genuinely believed that the property was his, this element is not met, because he lacked the intent to steal.