Larceny Law

What is Larceny Law?

Larceny law deals with certain types of theft crimes in which the perpetrator takes property belonging to someone else without permission. Prosecutions for larceny are among the most common criminal proceedings in municipal and county courts across the country. Law enforcement authorities may also choose to bring larceny cases in federal court, especially cases involving a large conspiracy or the theft of U.S. government property. Whether larceny is charged as a misdemeanor or a felony will primarily depend on how much the property that was taken is worth. Thus, establishing the dollar value of the stolen property can prove a critical issue in a larceny case.

People unfamiliar with criminal law may consider the term larceny to be synonymous with “stealing.” In a very broad sense this is correct, but anyone charged with larceny must consider the specific elements of the crime, as they are quite nuanced. Technically speaking, larceny is the trespassory taking and carrying away of the personal property of another with the intent to permanently deprive the victim of that property. Each of the elements contained in this definition can make a big difference when it comes to determining the defendant’s guilt or innocence.

The trespassory requirement simply means that a larceny must be committed without permission or in a way that is hostile to the property owner’s interests. Taking property that the owner has thrown away, for instance, would not qualify. The property must also be carried away. In the case of a car thief, merely breaking into the vehicle is not enough – the vehicle must be moved at least a short distance. Larceny does not apply to services or real estate, only personal property. Finally, the defendant must intend to permanently deprive the owner. Taking an item with the intent of returning it cannot be punished as larceny, even if the item is never returned to the owner.

Larceny Distinguished from Other Theft Crimes

It is easy to confuse larceny with similar types of theft crimes, even for police officers and prosecuting attorneys trained in criminal law. For example, if the defendant takes property that has been entrusted to his or her care, such as a stock broker who misappropriates client funds, the conduct should be charged as embezzlement, not larceny. Similarly, a defendant who steals property from the victim using even the slightest amount of physical force may be guilty of the more serious crime of robbery. Even larceny itself can be further characterized in terms of the severity of the conduct. When committed on a small scale, the crime is known as petite larceny. When committed on a large scale, the crime is known as grand larceny.

Types of Evidence in a Larceny Case

Because the dollar value of the property alleged to have been stolen plays an important role in a larceny prosecution, purchase receipts, appraisal documents, and even expert testimony is often presented on the issue. Security surveillance video may also be introduced at trial, as well as forensic evidence like the defendant’s fingerprints recovered from the scene. While the prosecution is not required to prove a motive for the crime, evidence on the topic may be relevant and admissible in some cases. Any incriminating statements made by the defendant are sure to be presented. Police officers and other witnesses may also be called to testify. The defendant may decide to take the stand and explain what happened, although the state cannot compel such testimony.

Mistake, Intoxication, and Other Defenses

Larceny is a “specific intent” crime. This means that the defendant must have meant to take the victim’s property without planning to give it back. Like other specific intent crimes, larceny can be defended on the basis that the defendant’s mental state prevented the defendant from forming the requisite intent. Consider a defendant who is extremely drunk at the time the property is taken. In an intoxicated state, the defendant may have been unable to think rationally about anything, let alone form a specific intent with respect to what he or she planned to do with the victim’s property.

It is also possible for defendants to have been mistaken about the circumstances surrounding the incident. Because of the specific intent requirement, even unreasonable mistakes may create a defense to larceny. For example, imagine an airline passenger who mistakenly grabbed someone else’s luggage from the baggage claim carousel. The bags do not resemble the passenger’s own luggage, and the average person would not have made the same mistake. Nevertheless, as long as the mistake was genuine, the passenger has a valid defense to the crime of larceny.

Choosing a Larceny Defense Attorney

If you have been charged with larceny, understand that it may require a trial to prove your innocence. When selecting a lawyer, ask about previous trial experience, and the lawyer’s success rate in larceny cases in particular. Remember, it is okay to consult several lawyers before making your choice.


Larceny Law - US

  • Bureau of Justice Statistics - Larceny / Theft

    Larceny/theft is defined as completed or attempted theft of property or cash without personal contact. Incidents involving theft of property from within the sample household would classify as theft if the offender has a legal right to be in the house (such as a maid, delivery person, or guest). If the offender has no legal right to be in the house, the incident would classify as a burglary.

  • Larceny - Definition

    In the United States, larceny is a common law crime involving theft. Under the common law, larceny is the trespassory taking (caption) and carrying away (asportation, removal) of the tangible personal property of another with the intent to deprive him or her of its possession permanently. In almost all states, it has become a statutory crime through codification.

  • Larceny and Wrongful Appropriation

    Any person subject to this chapter who wrongfully takes, obtains, or withholds, by any means, from the possession of the owner or of any other person any money, personal property, or article of value of any kind.

  • USDOJ - Criminal Resource Manual 1006 - Larceny

    The term "to steal" has no established meaning in the common law. See Crabb v. Zerbst, 99 F.2d 562, 565 (5th Cir. 1938). Instead, this term refers to the crime of larceny and was developed in modern pleading to broaden larceny beyond its strict common law definition.

Organizations Related to Larceny Law

  • National Center for Victims of Crime

    The National Center for Victims of Crime is the nation's leading resource and advocacy organization for crime victims and those who serve them. Since its inception in 1985, the National Center has worked with grassroots organizations and criminal justice agencies throughout the United States serving millions of crime victims.

  • VictimLaw

    In developing VictimLaw, the National Center for Victims of Crime has drawn upon more than 10 years of experience establishing and managing the nation’s only comprehensive database of state and federal crime victims’ rights legislation. While the National Center’s own legislative database was intended for internal use only, it became apparent that making such a tool publicly available would benefit crime victims and those who serve them. The National Center’s development of VictimLaw was guided by a diverse advisory panel of victim service and criminal justice professionals. Softek Services, Inc. served as technical advisor on the project.

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