Theft is the act of taking property (physical or intellectual) from someone (including businesses and corporations) with the intent of keeping the item permanently. various criminal codes throughout the United States subdivide theft into different areas, although the primary theme is identical: taking property, thus depriving the rightful owner of his or her goods. Within English common law, two precise categories of theft existed: petit larceny and grand larceny. A thin line separated the two, with the deciding factor resting on the value of the goods stolen. Grand larceny is a felony, while petit larceny is a misdemeanor.
In common law, for theft (used interchangeably with larceny and stealing) to occur, specific circumstances had to be met: (a) the thief deliberately took the property into his or her possession, thus securing control of it; (b) the goods were “moved” from their rightful place; (c) a trespassing occurred when the merchandise was removed from the rightful owner’s possession; (d) the property was tangible; (e) the property belonged to someone else (one cannot steal land that lacks an owner); and (f) the intent to steal was evident.
Other areas of theft include using false pretenses— meaning that an individual makes false representations, either spoken or written, with the intent to cheat or defraud the victim. A similar crime, but generally more serious, is a confidence game or “con game,” where the falsehoods must be tangible; mere words are not enough. Embezzlement is often a definition of theft, but there are subtle differences. In embezzlement, the property is legally possessed or accessed by the embezzler, whereas in theft the goods are in another’s possession. Embezzlement commonly occurs in businesses, with an employee “borrowing” money from the employer but not repaying it before detection.
Robbery is a particularly violent form of theft, often viewed as a hybrid of assault and battery plus larceny, thus the title “aggravated larceny.” Burglary is the act of entering into any building or structure as a trespasser with the intent to steal something of value. Passing bad checks is considered theft in all states, with special statutes detailing checks in which the giver does not have an account in the bank in which the check was drawn, and “short” checks in which an account is held but contains insufficient funds; thus, when a check is made out, it “bounces.”
As the 21st century unfolds, the two most common forms of theft are identity theft and the theft of intellectual property. Identity theft is a crime that occurs whenever someone steals another’s personal, identifying data (charge cards, Social Security number, and so on) without consent, with the intent to commit fraud and/or other criminal acts. The theft of intellectual property occurs whenever an individual plagiarizes another’s work, whether it is music, words, ideas, or other work and uses it as his or her own without acknowledging the rightful owner. The ubiquity of
Internet access has caused this problem to skyrocket, causing billions of dollars in lost revenue. Until better security measures are available, identity theft and the theft of intellectual property will remain common hazards in the information era.
- Cassell, Elaine and Douglas A. Bernstein. 2007. Criminal Behavior. 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Hale, Matthew and Charles M. Gray. 2002. The History of the Common Law in England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Schamalleger, Frank. 2006. Criminal Justice Today: An Introductory Text for the 21st Century. 9th ed. New York: Prentice Hall.
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