Robbery involves the theft of property through the use of violence or intimidation. The articles below contain information on the elements of robbery, issues that people commonly raise to defend themselves against robbery charges and the factors that go into determining the sentence for a person convicted of a robbery charge.

Robbery: In Brief

Many states define robbery as theft/larceny of property or money through the offender’s use of physical force or fear against a victim. Where a deadly weapon such as a gun is used or the victim suffers injury, the robbery may be charged as “armed” or “aggravated.” Unlike burglary, the crime of robbery almost always requires the presence of a victim who suffers actual injury, or is threatened with harm.

For example, Dan approaches Victor from behind, demanding Victor’s wallet while pressing a hard object into his back. Fearing that Dan has a gun, Victor gives up his wallet. If Dan did use a gun, or if Victor suffered an injury, the charge would likely be elevated to “armed” or “aggravated” robbery.

Robbery Overview

United States law regarding robbery has its roots in the common law that we inherited from the English legal system. While most states have codified their robbery laws in their penal codes, in the absence of such a statute the common law definition would still apply.

State penal codes define robbery in different ways, but the definitions contain the same basic elements. Robbery consists of:

  • The taking, with the intent to steal, of
  • The personal property of another
  • From his or her person or in their presence
  • Against his or her will
  • By violence, intimidation or the threat of force.

Essentially, robbery is theft accomplished by violence or the threat of violence. Since this element of force sits at the core of robbery, a vital question in a robbery prosecution concerns the timing of the violence. If, for example, the violence only occurs as the robber attempts to escape from the discovered scene of a theft, the charges brought might include larceny and resisting arrest, but not robbery.

The use or threat of force can also be slight, and the amount required to turn a theft into a robbery depends on the parties involved and the situation. If a small amount of violence or intimidation is enough to force the victim to turn over their property based on the natures of the victim and the assailant (if, say, the assailant is large and powerful and the victim is slight and elderly), then a robbery has occurred.

While the thief doesn’t have to use very much force in order to commit a robbery, a certain amount is still required. Purse snatchings, for instance, require some resistance by the victim before the theft rises to the level of a robbery. If the robber can remove the purse without any force in excess of what is required to simply take the purse off the victim’s person, then a jury may determine that no robbery has taken place.

States commonly separate robbery into different degrees based on the severity of the crime. Normal robbery is usually a second degree felony in most states, but can become a first degree felony if the robber uses a dangerous weapon or attempts to kill anyone or inflicts or attempts to inflict serious bodily injury. Some states designate this latter type of robbery as “aggravated” robbery.

Robbery is a state crime for the most part, but certain types of robberies fall under federal jurisdiction. The first kind of federal robbery is a bank robbery. Any robbery or attempted robbery of a bank, credit union or savings and loan institution constitutes a federal crime.

The federal government also has jurisdiction over robberies that affect articles in the stream of interstate commerce. The most common example of this is the hijacking of a truck full of goods being shipped from one state to another.

Robbery Defenses

Robbery defendants have several different options for mounting a defense at trial. Defendants can attempt to convince the jury that the prosecution’s evidence doesn’t prove that they committed the crime. Defendants can also admit to performing the actions the prosecution has accused them of, but argue that certain facts remove their culpability for the crime – otherwise known as an “affirmative defense”.


In a criminal prosecution, the government has the burden of proving that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This burden of proof means that a defendant can often avoid a conviction by attacking the prosecution’s evidence or by offering up evidence that undermines the prosecution’s case.

For example, a robbery defendant could offer alibi evidence that they had left the state two days before the robbery took place, or that they had attended an event at the time of the robbery and could provide several witnesses to corroborate that fact. The defense could also challenge eyewitness identifications, security camera videos or other prosecution evidence.

The defendant doesn’t have to entirely convince a jury of their actual innocence, but as long as they can cast a reasonable doubt on the prosecution’s arguments, the jury should return an acquittal.


A defendant can also offer up proof of their intoxication as an affirmative defense to a robbery charge.

Involuntary Intoxication

Intoxication that results from actions outside the defendant’s control will usually excuse any criminal behavior committed during the intoxication. In this situation, the defendant will have to prove that the intoxication occurred against their will or without their knowledge.

Voluntary Intoxication

Some states do not allow a voluntary intoxication defense, but others will allow a defendant to plead to a lesser charge because the crime occurred during intoxication. The main question in a voluntary intoxication defense becomes whether or not the defendant could form the necessary intent to commit robbery. Robbery requires a specific intent to use violence to steal another’s property, but intoxication could possibly render a defendant incapable of forming this specific intent. In such cases, a voluntary intoxication defense could result in a defendant’s conviction on lesser charges with a lower threshold for the defendant’s intent.


If someone pushes the defendant into committing a robbery that they would not have committed otherwise, the defendant could have an entrapment defense. Entrapment defenses are difficult to prove, but if the defendant can show that the person who was robbed somehow instigated the event solely to bring charges against the defendant, then they could argue that the victim entrapped them into committing the crime.

If the defendant intended to commit robbery in the first place, however, they will have no entrapment defense even if police officers or other individuals provide an opportunity to commit a robbery in order to collect evidence against the defendant.


If the defendant can show that someone forced them to commit the robbery by threatening them with immediate death or bodily injury, they may have a complete defense to the robbery charges. Proving duress presents difficulties for defendants, and many courts have rejected duress defenses because the defendant did not have a sufficient fear of harm or because the defendant had ample opportunity to avoid committing the robbery without risking death or serious injury.

Robbery Penalties and Sentencing

In a criminal case, juries determine a defendant’s guilt or innocence and judges determine sentences for the guilty. When crafting sentences, judges rely on the language of the relevant criminal statute for guidance on the term of the sentence. Judges then look at any aggravating or mitigating factors to determine the exact sentence to hand down.

Criminal statutes will typically include a section that sets a punishment for the crime in question. The punishment described in a criminal statute can take many forms, including a range of years with a minimum and maximum sentence or a list of several distinct options from which judges may select.

California, for example, sets the penalties for second degree robbery at two, three or five years. Judges can select which of those punishments the defendant will receive based on the facts of the case.

New York, on the other hand, establishes a minimum and maximum term of imprisonment and allows judges to select the appropriate penalty from within that range. For second degree robbery, the statutory range consists of a minimum term of one year and a maximum term of 15 years.

Statutes may also establish other forms of punishment, such as fines and restitution.

Judges will look at the facts of a case as well as any aggravating or mitigating factors when deciding on the exact sentence to give to a defendant. In a robbery case, judges will typically factor in the value of the stolen property, the level of violence or intimidation used and the nature of the victim to reach a suitable punishment.

Judges also look at aggravating or mitigating factors when crafting sentences. An aggravating factor increases the severity of the crime, while a mitigating factor reduces it. In jurisdictions where the use of a weapon during a robbery forms a component of punishment instead of creating a separate crime, the presence of a weapon constitutes an aggravating factor that will increase the length of a defendant’s sentence. The defendant’s criminal record can also act as an aggravating factor.

Mitigating factors for a robbery case can include such things as whether the defendant returned the stolen property or took responsibility for the commission of the crime. The lack of a criminal history can also provide a mitigating factor for the defendant.