It is not a good idea to rob someone. But if you do, is robbery a felony? Yes, in almost every circumstance, robbery is a felony regardless of the value of what was stolen. If you were to forcibly steal a phone from a person on the street, for example, you could be sent to jail for a minimum of one year. While every state has its own variations of robbery laws, the crime is viewed and punished similarly across the country. Below we will cover examples of robbery laws in different states and then give examples of famous heists in American history.
What Is Robbery?
According to New York law, robbery is forcible stealing. A person commits robbery when they use intimidation or physical force while in the act of committing larceny. In some states, there are two main types: robbery and armed robbery. In others, like New York, there are varying degrees of robbery.
Here is how New York defines the base form of robbery in New York Penal Code Article 160:
“Robbery is forcible stealing. A person forcibly steals property and commits robbery when, in the course of committing a larceny, he uses or threatens the immediate use of physical force upon another person for the purpose of:
1. Preventing or overcoming resistance to the taking of the property or to the retention thereof immediately after the taking; or
2. Compelling the owner of such property or another person to deliver up the property or to engage in other conduct which aids in the commission of the larceny.”
What Is the Difference Between Robbery and Larceny?
The separating factor between larceny and robbery is the use, or threatened use, of force. If someone were to approach you on the street and demand your wallet, it would only be robbery if you believed that the thief was going to forcibly take your wallet from you. Unmistakable robbery would be if that same thief came up to you on the street and put a gun or a knife in your face and demanded your wallet. Even if the thief simply put a hand in his pocket and pretended to have a gun, that would still constitute robbery.
What Is the Difference Between Robbery and Theft?
In New York, theft is a broad term that involves all types of criminal property crimes. Robbery would be considered one form of theft.
What Is the Difference Between Robbery and Burglary?
Burglary is when someone illegally gains entrance to a property with the intent to commit a crime, which is most often to steal something.
What Is the Punishment for Robbery?
Punishments for robbery will vary by state. Below is a breakdown of robbery laws in New York, California, Florida, and Illinois.
New York Robbery Laws
New York applies a broad definition to the threat of force in their courts and recognizes both non-verbal and verbal threats. Any kind of physical action or suggestion of force can be enough for a robbery conviction.
Here is how New York breaks down its robbery laws:
Third Degree Robbery
Robbery in the third degree is when a single person uses a weapon or force to commit larceny. This is the basic element that must be met for every degree of robbery. Most states view third-degree robbery as a felony with a minimum jail sentence of one year. In New York, robbery in the third degree is a Class D felony.
There is no required minimum amount of jail time required for third-degree robbery, as it is not defined as a violent offense in New York Penal Law 70.02. But as it is a felony, the natural minimum is one year. In New York, a typical punishment for robbery in the third degree begins at two to four years in jail to with a maximum of 42 months to seven years in state prison.
Second Degree Robbery
There are three scenarios that can lead to a charge of robbery in the second degree:
- The thief has help from another person
- If someone is injured in the course of the crime or flight from the scene or if what appears to be a firearm is displayed
- The stolen property is a motor vehicle
Second-degree robbery is a Class C felony in New York. The crime is punishable by a minimum of seven and a maximum of 15 years in state prison.
First Degree Robbery
A person can be charged with robbery in the first degree if anyone is seriously injured during the course or aftermath of the robbery. First-degree robbery is a Class B felony in New York and carries a minimum sentence of ten years and a maximum of 25 years in state prison.
California Robbery Laws
California has some of the more unique robbery laws in the United States. The sentences are much shorter than states like New York, there are only two degrees, and they are interestingly characterized. There are four criteria that a prosecutor must prove the perpetrator was guilty of to establish a base level of robbery in California:
- The defendant intentionally used intimidation or force to instigate fear.
- While the robbery was occurring, the victim feared for unlawful injury to themselves or to others involved at the time.
- The stolen property was in the victim’s immediate presence.
- The defendant attempted to escape with the stolen property.
Like in New York and most states, the use of intimidation or force is what separates robbery from larceny. The victim must fear for injury to themselves or someone nearby, and the stolen property must be within seeing or hearing distance of the victim. California has issued several decisions determining that the property does not have to be on the victim’s body at the time of the theft. As long as the property had been in the victim’s presence or nearby, that is enough for a robbery charge if the other conditions are met.
There are two types of robbery in California: second degree and first degree. Both have much lower punishments than first- and second-degree robbery in New York.
First Degree Robbery
Robbery in the first degree occurs in California if:
- The crime took place in a home or any inhabited dwelling, vessel, or building
- The victim was working as a taxi driver or transit operator
- The victim was using an automated teller machine or was near an ATM
The punishment for first-degree robbery in California is three to six years in prison. If the robbery were to include conspiracy or take place inside of an inhabited dwelling, the punishment could be anywhere from three to nine years in jail.
Second Degree Robbery
Robbery in the second degree occurs when the act does not meet any of the criteria for the first-degree robbery. The punishment for second-degree robbery in California is two to five years in prison.
Florida Robbery Laws
Florida takes its robbery laws much more seriously than California. Like all states, the general definition of robbery in Florida is larceny with the use of force or intimidation. There are four main criteria a prosecutor must prove to receive a robbery conviction:
- Taking of property without consent
- Force or threat of force was used
- Property that was stolen had value, even if the value was low
- Intent to permanently take possession of something without consent
Florida breaks down its degrees of robbery based on if a deadly weapon was used. If so, it is a first-degree felony and is punishable by up to a life sentence in prison. A home invasion with or without a deadly weapon is also a felony in the first degree with the same maximum sentence of life in jail. Robbery in the second degree occurs when it is not a home invasion, and no deadly weapon is used.
Illinois Robbery Laws
Illinois law distinguishes the crime as either armed robbery or plain robbery, and both crimes are considered felonies.
Plain robbery is considered a Class 2 felony and carries a minimum sentence of three years and a maximum sentence of seven years in jail. There is also a maximum fine of $25,000.
Plain robbery could be elevated to a Class 1 felony if the conflict took place in a school, place of worship, or any childcare facility. This crime carries a sentence of four to 15 years in jail, along with a fine of $25,000.
Armed robbery is considered a Class X felony in Illinois. This type of crime has a broad range of potential sentences, from as low as six years to anywhere between 55 years and life in prison. There is also a maximum fine of $25,000. The determining factor in sentencing a Class X felony is how the weapon was used. Mandatory parole is three years after release.
A crime is armed robbery in Illinois if a weapon of any type is being carried during a robbery. The punishment will escalate if a firearm is discharged and will escalate further if a firearm causes serious injury to another person.
Aggravated robbery falls in between armed and plain robbery concerning potential punishments. The difference between armed robbery and aggravated robbery is whether or not a weapon was present. Aggravated robbery takes place when the perpetrator implies or suggests that they have a weapon and will use it. Aggravated robbery is a Class 1 felony in Illinois and is punishable by between four and fifteen years in jail, along with a fine of $25,000.
Stealing a motor vehicle is a different crime than robbery in Illinois and is referred to as vehicular hijacking. The crime can be escalated to aggravated vehicular hijacking when any of the following criteria are met:
- Victim was over the age of 60
- Victim was handicapped
- Someone under the age of 16 was in the vehicle at the time
- The perpetrator carried a weapon
Vehicular hijacking is a Class 1 felony in Illinois and is punishable by between four and fifteen years in jail, along with a fine of $25,000. Aggravated vehicular hijacking is a Class X felony, punishable by anywhere between six years and life in prison.
Famous Robberies in American History
Below are the four biggest heists and bank robberies in American history:
4. Brinks Building in Boston, Massachusetts – 1950
The “crime of the century,” as it became known, was an armed robbery at the Brinks bank in Boston on January 17, 1950. It took 11 men to pull off the heist, and they were led by Joseph “Big Joe” McGinnis. McGinnis was the crime’s mastermind. The crew dressed in clothing similar to the bank’s uniform and used rubber gloves and rubber-soled shoes. For their escape, the crew carried rubber Halloween masks. The crucial element the gang had, though, was copied keys for the second floor.
The gang used the element of surprise to quickly bind and gag the second-floor workers. Once their opposition was subdued, the crew took everything the bank had—except for a payroll box meant for the General Electric company. In total, the heist was $2.8 million.
The 11 robbers agreed not to spend any of the money for two years, at which point the statute of limitations would run out. But the majority of them were arrested just five days before that date came. Eight members of the gang received maximum life sentences in jail. All were paroled in 1971, except McGinnis, who died in jail.
3. Loomis Fargo – 1997
David Scott Ghantt, a regional vault supervisor, masterminded this near-record heist in Charlotte, North Carolina. Ghantt had a crew consisting of girlfriend and former Loomis employee Kelly Campbell, former FBI informant Steven Chambers and his wife, Michelle Chambers, along with four others.
After Ghantt showed interest in robbing the facility, Campbell introduced him to Chambers, who she said could help him pull off the heist. The plan was that Ghantt would commit the crime and then flee to Mexico, leaving the majority of the money with Chambers. Chambers would then occasionally wire money to Ghantt until the heat cooled down on the case.
On an October night, Ghantt loaded 200 pounds worth of cash totaling $17.3 million. The money was loaded into separate cars from his waiting associates, and then he took off for Mexico with $50,000. However, as the only employee missing the next morning, Ghantt immediately became the prime suspect. It was then easy for the FBI to connect Ghantt to Kelly Campbell, but it was much more of a challenge to connect them to Steven Chambers.
The plan was to limit spending, but Chambers, believing the FBI would never discover his connection, had no intention of holding back spending. Soon Chambers and his wife upgraded from a mobile home to a luxury house and bought two new cars.
The key moment that sunk the couple, though, was a bank deposit. After making only small deposits to the bank, one day Michelle Chambers asked the bank teller how much she could deposit before it was reported to the feds. So the bank teller proceeded to fill out a suspicious report, which made its way to the FBI.
Ghantt was arrested in Playa del Carmen on March 1, 1998. His eight co-conspirators were arrested the next day. Many relatives were then also arrested for money laundering, as they had signed for safety deposit boxes to hold some of the money. The relatives received probation for their part, while Steven Chambers was sentenced to 11 years and three months in jail, along with a fine of $3,500,000. His wife Michelle received seven years and eight months, while Ghantt served seven years.
In 2016, the heist was turned into a comedy movie called Masterminds.
2. Philip Noel Johnson, Florida – 1997
Loomis Fargo was twice a victim of historic robberies in 1997. A driver for a Loomis Fargo armored car named Philip Noel Johnson was the mastermind of this one. On March 29, 1997, Johnson overpowered his two coworkers and drove off with $18.8 million. Johnson traveled to Mountain Home, North Carolina, and hid the majority of the money in a storage shed before fleeing to Mexico City.
When Johnson attempted to return to the United States, he gave the customs worker enough suspicion to take him aside for further questioning. Johnson was found with multiple passports in his possession and was eventually arrested for the robbery. Nearly all of the stolen money was recovered, and Johnson was sent to jail for 25 years.
1. Dunbar Armored Car Robbery, California – 1997
The most significant cash robbery to happen in the United States was the Dunbar armored car robbery. On September 12, 1997, a Dunbar safety inspector named Allen Pace went to work. While on the job, Pace was able to take pictures and examine the armored car depot. After his reconnaissance, Pace recruited five friends from his childhood to rob the Los Angeles Dunbar facility.
Using his own keys, Pace and his crew entered the facility on Friday night, September 12. Pace had already determined how to outsmart the video cameras, and the crew made their way to the staff cafeteria. One by one, they ambushed the guards going on their lunch break around 12:30 am.
Pace was aware that the vault was left open on Friday nights, due to the large amounts of money being moved. So the crew of six rushed the vault guards and subdued them before they could trigger any alarms. Pace was also aware of what bags contained non-sequential bills and the highest denominations. After half an hour, $18.9 million had been loaded onto a waiting U-Haul truck. Pace’s final act was to remove the video camera recordings.
Investigators were immediately aware that this could only have been an inside job, and Pace was examined closely, but nothing was found. The crew laundered their money through real estate deals and fake businesses. And they would have gotten away with it, if not for Eugene Lamar Hill, who presented his real estate agent a stack of cash with the original currency straps. The broker went to the police, and Hill eventually confessed, naming his co-conspirators.
Allen Pace, 32 years old at the time in 2001, was sentenced to serve 24 years in jail on April 23. Just $5 million of the original $18.9 million was recovered.