The concept of theft is familiar enough. Less familiar is the way the law has treated various aspects of the act of stealing. Criminal law distinguishes among many different crimes that are popularly known as theft. Many technical words have entered the language—burglary, larceny, robbery—but are often used inaccurately. Brief definitions of the more common terms are discussed here.
The basic crime of stealing personal property is larceny. By its old common-law definition, still in use today, larceny is the wrongful “taking and carrying away of the personal property of another with intent to steal the same.”
The separate elements of this offense have given rise to all kinds of difficult cases. Take the theft of fruit, for example, with regard to the essential element of “personal property.” If a man walking through an orchard plucks a peach from a tree and eats it, he is not guilty of larceny because he has not taken away personal property (the peach is part of the land, being connected to the tree). But if he picks up a peach lying on the ground, he is guilty of larceny. Or consider the element of “taking” or “carrying away.” Sneaking into a movie theater without paying is not an act of larceny (though in most states it is a criminal act). Taking electricity by tapping into the power lines of an electric utility was something that baffled judges late in the nineteenth century because it was not clear whether electricity is a “something” that can be taken. Modern statutes have tended to make clear that electricity can be the object of larceny. Or consider the element of an “intent to steal the same.” If you borrow your friend’s BMW without his permission in order to go to the grocery store, intending to return it within a few minutes and then do return it, you have not committed larceny. But if you meet another friend at the store who convinces you to take a long joyride with the car and you return hours later, you may have committed larceny.
A particular form of larceny is robbery, which is defined as larceny from a person by means of violence or intimidation.
Larceny involves the taking of property from the possession of another. Suppose that a person legitimately comes to possess the property of another and wrongfully appropriates it—for example, an automobile mechanic entrusted with your car refuses to return it, or a bank teller who is entitled to temporary possession of cash in his drawer takes it home with him. The common law had trouble with such cases because the thief in these cases already had possession; his crime was in assuming ownership. Today, such wrongful conversion, known as embezzlement, has been made a statutory offense in all states.
Statutes against larceny and embezzlement did not cover all the gaps in the law. A conceptual problem arises in the case of one who is tricked into giving up his title to property. In larceny and embezzlement, the thief gains possession or ownership without any consent of the owner or custodian of the property. Suppose, however, that an automobile dealer agrees to take his customer’s present car as a trade-in. The customer says that he has full title to the car. In fact, the customer is still paying off an installment loan and the finance company has an interest in the old car. If the finance company repossesses the car, the customer—who got a new car at a discount because of his false representation—cannot be said to have taken the new car by larceny or embezzlement. Nevertheless, he tricked the dealer into selling, and the dealer will have lost the value of the repossessed car. Obviously, the customer is guilty of a criminal act; the statutes outlawing it refer to this trickery as the crime of false pretenses, defined as obtaining ownership of the property of another by making untrue representations of fact with intent to defraud.
A number of problems have arisen in the judicial interpretation of false-pretense statutes. One concerns whether the taking is permanent or only temporary. The case of State v. Mills (Cases ) shows the subtle questions that can be presented and the dangers inherent in committing “a little fraud.”
In the Mills case, the claim was that a mortgage instrument dealing with one parcel of land was used instead for another. This is a false representation of fact. Suppose, by contrast, that a person misrepresents his state of mind: “I will pay you back tomorrow,” he says, knowing full well that he does not intend to. Can such a misrepresentation amount to false pretenses punishable as a criminal offense? In most jurisdictions it cannot. A false-pretense violation relates to a past event or existing fact, not to a statement of intention. If it were otherwise, anyone failing to pay a debt might find himself facing criminal prosecution, and business would be less prone to take risks.
The problem of proving intent is especially difficult when a person has availed himself of the services of another without paying. A common example is someone leaving a restaurant without paying for the meal. In most states, this is specifically defined in the statutes as theft of services.