UPDATED: April 8, 2020
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- There are two categories: violent and nonviolent
- Aggravated robbery involves the use of a weapon, the victim suffering injury, or circumstances that make the crime more heinous
- Prosecutors must prove a person accused of aggravated robbery is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt
- Prosecutors almost always seek prison sentences in aggravated robbery cases
All theft crimes are not the same. There's a big difference between going into a store and taking an item from an unattended counter versus taking that same item from a salesperson at gunpoint. Theft is a broadly-used term for stealing another person's property, but the latter is an example of aggravated robbery, which is classified as a violent crime and is harder to defend. The punishment is generally harsher as well. If you or a loved one has been charged with a theft crime, it is crucial to understand how the crime of aggravated robbery is classified, punished, and defended.
Is there a basic theft crime?
All theft is the unauthorized and permanent taking of someone else's property, but there are a myriad of types, running the gamut from petty crimes like shoplifting to more serious crimes like aggravated robbery. Theft can be broken down into two categories: nonviolent crimes and violent crimes.
Basic theft crimes are classified as nonviolent crimes with three main requirements:
- The taking of money or property of another
- without consent or authorization, and
- with the intent to permanently deprive them of it.
Force is not involved in nonviolent theft crimes.
What are the most common types of nonviolent theft crimes?
Each state has its own laws, but there are three general types of nonviolent theft crimes:
- Larceny is the unauthorized and permanent taking of someone else's property without the use or threat of violence. A textbook example of larceny would be pickpocketing, which is the stealing of money or other valuables from a person's purse, pocket, or body without the victim noticing the theft at the time.
- Embezzlement starts with the basic elements for larceny but involves the additional circumstance of the property initially being entrusted to the thief who later converts it for his or her own use. Common examples of embezzlement include corporate executives diverting company funds for personal expenditures, stockbrokers using client investment funds to cover losses, or cashiers ringing up half of the items purchased but collecting full payment in order to pocket the other half.
- False pretenses is the crime of knowingly misrepresenting a fact in order to acquire someone else's property. If an individual lies to an elderly man claiming to be his long-lost daughter so that he gives her the deed to his house, she has committed the crime of false pretenses.
These nonviolent theft crimes mostly differ in the type of property that is stolen and the method of stealing.
What is the difference between robbery and theft?
Robbery is the unauthorized and permanent taking of someone else's property by violent or intimidating means. Unlike simple theft crimes, robbery is classified as a violent crime because it involves taking something from a person by force, or the threat of force.
Robbery has four main requirements:
- The taking of money or property from another
- without consent or authorization
- with the intent to permanently deprive them of it
- by force or threat of force.
Does robbery require use of a weapon?
Taking by force does not necessarily mean by use of a weapon. A person can be charged with robbery if they committed the theft by violent, threatening or intimidating means, even though an actual weapon was not used. Classic examples include the robber who uses a toy gun, sticks a finger in his pocket to look like a gun, or uses a note that says he has a gun.
Does robbery require injury to a victim?
Robbery also does not require injury to the victim. Typically, the mere threat of violence in the act of taking property can elevate a crime from theft to robbery. Threatening people on the streets with a baseball bat and demanding all their money and jewelry is robbery, even if no one is injured. Verbal threats to kill or injure the victim (e.g., Scream and you're dead, Don't make me hurt you, or You'll be sorry if you don't do as I say) are also sufficient. The threat needs to be of imminent harm. For example, threatening to do harm to the victim's family member many months hence is not imminent enough to qualify as a threat.
Robbery can also be accomplished by acts of intimidation, i.e., making someone afraid. But in some states, the victim's fear must be a reasonable response that any ordinary person would feel under the circumstances. So if it is unreasonable for an ordinary person to be intimidated by tattoos, for example, then it is likely that a robber's arms being covered with tattoos would not be considered an act of intimidation.
How much force has to be used?
Stealing someone's property is robbery if any force is used to obtain it. Pushing someone down, hitting someone, or wrestling something from the victim's grasp are all examples of force. Even slight force, like a light shove or the snapping of a purse strap, will do. As a result, sometimes a fine line exists between robbery and theft. If a thief snatches a woman's purse from a restaurant table, that is merely theft, because neither force nor threat of force was used against her. But, if she grabs the purse straps and resists even a tiny bit, it is robbery.
The timing of the force matters, too. For example, if a thief uses violence only when attempting to flee the scene, the charges would include theft and other offenses such as assault and battery, but not necessarily robbery.
What if property is not taken directly from the person?
The taking away element includes not only taking something from someone's grasp, such as hitting someone to make them lose hold of a possession, but also taking something from someone's presence, such as holding a fake grenade while demanding a cashier open the register and place money in a bag.
Most laws require that the defendant actually carry the property away (even slightly), but exercising control over the item will likely suffice. For instance, if a thief places his hands on a camera case hanging from the victim's shoulder but the theft is stopped before he could move it, it is still considered a robbery because the thief had control over the item.
What's the difference between robbery and aggravated robbery?
Aggravated robbery is a robbery that is committed with aggravating factors that increase the severity of the crime, such as a weapon being used, the victim suffering injury, or other aggravating circumstances that make the crime more heinous. For example, if the victim of the robbery was elderly or the robbery was committed in front of a child, the crime is viewed as more severe and the defendant as guilty of a more serious offense. Also, in some states like Illinois, a person can be charged with aggravated robbery if they delivered a controlled substance to the victim of the robbery without consent via injection, ingestion, or forced inhalation.
Is there a difference between aggravated robbery and armed robbery?
In most states, armed robbery, i.e., the commission of a robbery while carrying a dangerous weapon, is not a distinct crime. Instead, the perpetrator would be charged with aggravated robbery because using a dangerous weapon constitutes an aggravating factor and makes the crime more serious than simple robbery.
A firearm clearly qualifies as a dangerous weapon, but other objects can also qualify as long as they are inherently deadly or can be used in a manner that causes or is likely to cause serious physical injury or death. As such, in certain cases, items like stationary objects, canes, animals, parts of the human body, and vehicles could constitute dangerous weapons.
Finally, the perpetrator does not have to actually use the dangerous weapon. It is a sufficiently aggravating circumstance to exhibit or carry a weapon and threaten to use it.
Is there a federal aggravated robbery crime?
While most laws dealing with robbery are controlled at the state level, there are four main federal robbery statutes. The Federal Bank Robbery Act punishes bank robbers and includes additional penalties for the use of deadly weapons. There is a statute that punishes theft of government property, and another that addresses the theft or receipt of stolen mail. The Hobbs Act comes closest to a federal aggravated robbery statute. It punishes the theft of property or property rights by threatened or actual use of force, violence, or fear," and is often used in cases involving organized crime.
What is the punishment for aggravated robbery?
Aggravated robbery is a very serious offense. Because it is considered a violent crime, most states classify aggravated robbery as a felony. Felonies are the highest level of criminal offenses and result in higher sentencing ranges than misdemeanors.
Is jail time mandatory?
The punishment for an aggravated robbery conviction will vary depending on the circumstances, but prosecutors almost always seek prison sentences. Each state has different laws, but the sentencing guidelines of most jurisdictions include imprisonment as well as statutory fines. Some states have longer prison sentences and smaller fines, like the Texas penal code, which provides for imprisonment up to 99 years but a fine of no more than $10,000. Colorado's sentencing scheme, on the other hand, sets the maximum sentence for aggravated robbery at 16 years, but the fine can be set as high as $750,000. Many state statutes fall somewhere in between. For example, under Ohio's felony sentencing table, aggravated robbery carries the possible sentence of 3-11 years in prison and fines up to $20,000. Someone convicted of this crime as a Class 1 felony in Illinois will spend 4-15 years imprisoned and have to pay a fine of $25,000.
In addition to jail time and statutory fines, restitution, i.e., repayment for financial losses suffered as a result of a crime to the victim, may be included in the punishment.
Less severe punishment, such as probation or some type of court-approved counseling or community service, is not likely in an aggravated robbery conviction unless there are significant mitigating factors.
What factors influence sentencing?
Many factors go into sentencing determinations for aggravated robbery. Clearly, stiffer sentences will be handed down if there was a death or serious injury during the commission of the crime. Likewise, expect longer jail time if the victims are particularly vulnerable, like the elderly, disabled persons, or pregnant women. A defendant with a past criminal record of the same type of offense, or who used a particularly dangerous weapon when committing the crime, i.e., a loaded gun, can also expect a significant term of imprisonment. The value of the property stolen, the presence of an accomplice, and the location of the aggravated robbery — specifically whether it was in close proximity to a daycare facility, school, public park, or church, or was part of a home invasion — also will be factored into the sentence.
What are mitigating factors that could reduce the sentence?
There are some factors that may mitigate the punishment. A significant mitigating factor is if no one was harmed during the commission of the crime. Also, factors like the perpetrator having no past criminal record or being a coerced accomplice rather than the ringleader may bolster an argument for punishment on the lower end of the sentencing range. Although not an excuse for the crime, personal circumstances at the time of the offense, such as stress, emotional problems, illness, or being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, might be taken into account. A sentencing judge will also likely consider the defendant's age and a show of genuine remorse.
Is probation possible for aggravated robbery?
A defendant may or may not qualify for probation, because aggravated robbery is considered a violent offense. However, if the defendant's involvement was minimal or there were mitigating circumstances, a probated sentence may be possible. Factors could include demonstrating that the defendant was not the actual bad actor in the group or personally did not use force. Probation might also be appropriate if the defendant is very young or very old, and has little or no criminal history. In any event, probation for aggravated robbery usually requires intensive supervision, including frequent reporting requirements and alcohol and drug testing.
What are common defenses to an aggravated robbery charge?
To convict a defendant of aggravated robbery (or any other crime for that matter), prosecutors must prove all of the elements beyond a reasonable doubt. If the judge in a bench trial, or the jury in a jury trial, finds that each element has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, they must acquit and find the defendant not guilty of the crime charged.
Mistaken Identity Defense
Aggravated robbery cases can be difficult to defend because the crime involves a victim who is usually available to testify against the defendant at trial. That said, it is common for attorneys to use the defense of mistaken identity. The argument is that aggravated robbery involves circumstances where the victim is normally under great emotional distress, and as such, it is entirely possible that they misidentified the perpetrator. If there is video surveillance or fingerprint evidence, then a mistaken identity defense will be less effective.
Challenge Specific Elements
It may be possible to challenge specific elements of the crime. For example, some states may allow as a defense that the defendant was taking only what was his. Technically, because aggravated robbery requires taking the property of another with the intent to permanently deprive that person of it, if the defendant was retaking what was his, the prosecution would not be able to prove this element of the crime. Most states, however, will not entertain this defense, on the grounds that it encourages dangerous self-help measures that all too often lead to injuries and worse.
Challenge the Use or Threat of Force
Another defensive strategy is not to challenge the robbery, but instead challenge the use or threat of force that resulted in elevating the charge to aggravated robbery. For example, law enforcement may charge a defendant with aggravated robbery if the victim saw a weapon, like a knife or pipe, in the defendant's back pocket during the commission of the offense. If, however, the victim cannot attest that the defendant brandished or threatened to use it, a defendant can raise a defense that the weapon was not used during or in furtherance of the commission of the robbery. This defensive theory is not always effective at the trial level, but tends to be more effective on appeal when a higher court is reviewing a case for the sufficiency of the evidence. If a defendant wins on this issue, the punishment may be substantially reduced.
There may be other defenses that can be made by focusing on a lack of evidence linking the perpetrator to the crime, such as when the defendant has a credible alibi. Claims of false allegations or improper arrest are also relatively common.
Aggravated robbery is a serious violent crime, and the charges typically proceed to trial. Individuals who find themselves in this situation run the risk of conviction with a lengthy prison sentence. If you are charged with aggravated robbery, you should consult a criminal defense attorney in your community.